Union writes to First Minister over Moy Park employee death

Union leaders have written to the First and Deputy First Minister demanding testing for poultry and meatpacking sector employees following reports a worker at Moy Park’s Dungannon site has died of Covid-19.

It’s understood the female employee who passed away was in her 50s.

The union said the Stormont Executive needed to take urgent action to avoid a repeat of the crisis in the care home sector occurring within Northern Ireland’s meat processing sector.

In the Republic of Ireland, 566 cases of Covid-19 have been confirmed across 10 clusters in meat plants.

Jackie Pollock, regional secretary for Unite, wrote to the First Minister and deputy First Minister to demand urgent action from the Northern Ireland Executive amid claims Covid-19 clusters have emerged in poultry and meat industry sites across the region.

Pollock said: “We cannot allow political inaction to lead to a needless repetition of the Covid-19 crisis afflicting our care home sector.

“It is right that we pay tribute to her memory and extend our condolences to her friends and family.

We need to see immediate action in light of this news and the emerging Covid-19 clusters which are emerging at poultry and meatpacking sites.

The news comes less than two months after up to 150 workers at the same plant walked out in protest over fears their health was being put at risk to Covid-19.

In response to the walk-out, the firm said it had identified seven areas to enhance social distancing and would also take measures such as staggering breaks, re-spacing workstations and communal areas, as well as installing screens on appropriate production lines.

However, the union is now calling for Moy Park’s Dungannon site to be temporarily shut down while the entire workforce and their families are tested for the virus.

Pollock added: “The high-risk nature of the poultry and meatpacking sector has been widely recognised for some time and makes all the worse the abject failure to roll-out a comprehensive programme of testing for those working in this sector.

The absence of extensive testing among all essential workers has been a key factor leading to this growing crisis, a crisis which is already spilling over into the local communities from which these workers come.

“Since the inception of this pandemic, Unite has repeatedly called on employers and the HSE to enforce effective infection control measures.

“In that context, we are very concerned at the failure of HSENI to conduct responsive physical inspections – including to date at some locations where clusters have been reported.

“While employers tell us that they are complying with the PHA guidance, workers are still contracting this virus.

“The current guidance and enforcement mechanisms are clearly inadequate to preserve the health and safety of workers; indeed their weakness effectively makes infection controls optional to employers.

I have written today to both Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill, in their capacity as Executive Office Ministers, to bring forward a programme of mass testing and the establishment of a sectoral task force to deal with workplace infection control in the poultry and meat processing sector.

“Measures must include, where necessary, the enforced temporary closure of sites with clusters for testing of workers and their family members, with workers provided full-pay compensation to stay at home and save lives before the results come back enabling reopening.

“Given the experience to-date there must be a role in that process. There can be room for failure to act in the face of this threat to workers,” Pollock concluded.

AgriLand contacted Moy Park for response. However, at the time of publication, no response had yet been received.

Editor’s note: An update on this story can be found here: Unannounced inspection found Moy Park site had ‘high standard’ of Covid measures.