Most staff affected by coronavirus at meat plants in Republic 'now back at work'
The majority of staff affected by coronavirus at meat plants in the Republic are now back at work, an industry figure has said.
Director of Meat Industry Ireland, Cormac Healy, said 97% of staff affected by coronavirus have returned to work.
The outbreak of coronavirus at meat plants is being discussed by the Oireachtas Special Committee on the Government's Covid-19 Response.
Mr Healy told the committee: "The industry has worked tirelessly to protect employees throughout the course of this pandemic and continues to do so. Our members took very extensive measures early in the crisis to reduce risks, and continually revised and enhanced their approach in line with all relevant guidance.
"With no active cases in our meat plants today and 97% of all affected staff having safely returned to work, we believe that significant progress has been made, but we must remain vigilant and ensure safety protocols stay in place.
"We commend all workers in the sector for their efforts during these times and thank them and their families for helping ensure that the essential service of food production has been able to continue."
Mr Healy told the committee that where cases of Covid-19 were detected, Meat Industry Ireland (MII) members quickly responded by following the appropriate self-isolation advice for all employees who showed symptoms or tested positive.
He said: "MII members also traced close contacts who were also asked to self-isolate. The precautionary principle has been followed, taking no risks with identified positive cases and close contacts, and excluding them from the workplace."
Mr Healy said 80% of workers in the sector are from Ireland or the EU, but that due to skills shortages in recent years, workers have also come to Ireland through the Government's Employment Permit System.
He said: "All employees coming under this scheme have the same employment rights as other workers and are paid at rates above the minimum wage."
Mr Healy told the committee all inspections carried out in meat plants were announced in advance.
Fianna Fail TD Cormac Devlin said he believed unannounced inspections are preferable.
Mr Healy said: "My understanding is that the HSE site inspections are taken on the basis of advance notice - that was the decision of the Health and Safety Authority (HSA). It was not under any circumstances because of pressure that we may have put on inspector, which we did not.
"It was a very clear situation - the HSA did not want and did not feel it appropriate to arrive at a site where there was a potential proven spread of the virus. They thought it was better to give plants advance notice rather than appear on their doorstep.
"There is a permanent presence of Department of Agriculture inspectors at all meat plants and they are there all year round."
Joe Ryan, a director of Meat Industry Ireland, said 30% of the 15,000-strong workforce in the Republic's meat industry are Irish nationals while the remainder are migrants.
Mr Ryan said: "Eight per cent of our workforce are EU citizens with the balance then being people who are coming to work in the industry... on work permits and are here legitimately.
"The claim is being made here today that the industry is staffed solely by migrant labour, but EU citizens who have been here in Ireland for 10 or 15 years and have sent their children to college here, can they still be classed as migrants? I don't think so."
Mr Ryan said the number of people employed in the industry from outside the Republic is high because of full employment.
"I don't know that Ireland is unique in terms of the breakdown of our staff in our industry - we are a sector like other sectors that have moved to full employment in that we have had to hire workers from other EU member states."
Mr Healy said there had been 1,100 positive cases of coronavirus in meat plants since the outbreak began but there are currently no active cases.