Unite the union has demanded urgent action from the Stormont Executive to improve testing for COVID-19 in poultry plants, after a member of staff at Moy Park’s Dungannon plant died.
If necessary, sites must be temporarily shut for testing of workers, and family members, with full pay to enable safe reopening, the union said.
Jackie Pollock, Regional Secretary for Unite, wrote to the First Minister and deputy First Minister to demand urgent action from the Northern Ireland Executive.
“It is now confirmed that a member of our union working in Moy Park in Dungannon died of COVID-19. 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.
“We cannot allow a crisis to develop in the sector such as has been witnessed in the USA where more than 10,000 workers have contracted the virus, with scores dead, or in Brazil where the number afflicted remains unknown due to the inadequacy of testing. We cannot allow political inaction to lead to a needless repetition of the COVID-19 crisis afflicting our care home sector.
“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 taskforce 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.
A spokesperson for Moy Park said: “We are deeply saddened to learn of the death of one of our team members. Our thoughts are with Luciana’s family and friends at this incredibly difficult time.
“The terrible impact of the coronavirus pandemic continues to greatly affect everyone’s daily lives throughout our community.
“As we have consistently stated, the health, wellbeing and safety of our Moy Park team members is always our most important consideration. It is all the more disappointing therefore to have to respond to these inaccurate claims made by Unite the Union.
“Moy Park worked quickly with all key parties (government, industry bodies, employees and unions) as the COVID-19 crisis unfolded. We evolved our actions to create and implement bespoke solutions early on, with many of them now recognised as leading the way for food processors. The key significant measures taken included the following:
- Installation of perspex screens.
- Social distancing / team member traffic flow on site.
- Staggered breaks / socially distanced restaurants.
- Enhanced cleaning and additional PPE.
- Incentive payments to all site based team members.
“These measures have been in place for some time at all our sites and are stringently followed. These are also exactly the type of measures that government guidance is now calling for as other industries return to work. We continue to consult, evolve and review our measures to ensure rigorous safety, for example we are in the process of introducing thermal temperature scanning of all team members as they arrive at work.
“We reiterate, Moy Park follows all government guidelines and work closely with the Public Health Agency, DAERA and the Health and Safety Executive, adhering strictly to their advice and protocols. We have received positive feedback following a recent unannounced inspection by the HSE that was conducted at one of our other sites, which has the same measures in place to those at Dungannon. The inspection focused solely on the controls which we have in place to ensure employee safety in relation to COVID-19. We will continue to update our procedures in line with their guidance.
“We work tirelessly to protect the safety of our team and we formally review the situation daily. Finally, we just want to say how incredibly proud we are of all of our people, who truly deserve the name of being Food Heroes, as they aim to help feed the nation during this crisis.”