Marco* felt the phlegm gather heavily on his chest for five days before he called his local health centre and told them he worked at the meat plant. He was tested within hours – the result was positive.
“One hundred per cent, I know I got it in the factory,” he says. “If the disease was in the animals, they’d have closed the place. But for workers, the factories can do what they want.”
Marco is one of a number of workers who have contacted the Guardian about conditions in some meat plants since the pandemic began. Speaking on condition of anonymity, workers in factories across Ireland and Northern Ireland say that not enough was done at the start of the outbreak to minimise their exposure, and that though some protective measures are now in place, they still don’t feel safe at work.
For Marco, who has worked at the same factory for more than a decade, it’s too little, too late. “I felt frightened, ” he says. “The damage has been done.”
Life as a meat plant worker is a low-wage, bloody business, workers told the Guardian. “It’s horrible killing cows, when you see how they do it,” says Florin*, a Romanian worker who has been employed in a meat plant in the Republic of Ireland for more than five years said. “They kill it – shoot it, cut the neck, cut the legs. I don’t like it. The cow is slow, an emotional thing. And you see the blood, and they go from being alive to being in pieces. That’s the way. When you see the conditions – it’s a dirty and nasty place, nobody is happy.” Temperatures in the factories can hover at 4C, with industrial ceiling fans that circulate cool air to keep the meat free of microbes. The job is repetitive and tough; workers take painkillers to get through their shifts.
Now countries across the world with industrialised meat supply chains are grappling with serious coronavirus outbreaks in meat and processed food plants. Official figures show that there have been outbreaks at 12 plants in the Republic of Ireland and 571 workers have tested positive. In Northern Ireland, union officials have raised serious concerns, and last week one worker died.
Workers point to bottlenecks in toilets and washrooms; the locker-rooms, where workers pile in before and after work; and the canteens, where they gather to eat. The greatest risks are during eight-hour shifts on the factory floor where they work half a metre or less apart from colleagues on the production line.
They say factories have not been making sure that workers had personal protective equipment, or abiding by social distancing guidelines. “There was no social distancing,” says Marco. “You had to go through areas where everyone was on top of themselves, sneezing and coughing.”
“They didn’t give us masks or gloves. We had to buy our own,” said Florin. “People are scared, they say it’s not safe.”
On top of the lack of safety equipment, the fact that migrants make up the vast majority of the workforce in the meat industry is also a problem, with many travelling from Timor-Leste, Lithuania, China, Poland, South Africa, Romania, Bulgaria and Brazil to work. Marco says that in his factory not enough information was given to non-English speakers about how they could keep themselves – and those around them – safe from infection.
In general, migrant workers have settled well into Irish life. Pablo*, who was recruited from his home town in Africa, says he has always felt welcomed by local people. But in the factory, where he earns about EUR11.80 (GBP10.40) an hour, life is hard. Workers feel intimidated and vulnerable, and are unable to stand up for their legal rights, he says. “People are not being treated with dignity and respect.”
Pablo says that until a few weeks ago, apart from posting government notices about Covid-19 on the walls, his factory didn’t put anything in place to protect its workers. “There was no checking of temperature, no masks, no 2-metre social distancing. When we asked for masks, they said no.” He says he he doesn’t feel safe at work, and is sure that he will get infected with the virus. “New workers are brought in to replace people who are out sick, but we don’t know if they’ve been screened.”
Because of their low pay, many migrant workers live in communal houses and some have to share bedrooms. “They don’t feel safe, but they have to work,” says Adriana*, a Polish worker at a meat factory in Northern Ireland. There are perspex screens in parts of the factory and workers’ temperatures are now checked, but there is still no distancing inside the factory, and workers are afraid.
Santos*, a Brazilian worker in a meat plant south of the border, says that many of his fellow workers have poor levels of English and aren’t aware of their rights, such as welfare support if they are sick. “If these people have the virus, who will help them? How will they get food?”
Following his positive diagnosis for the virus, Marco is now recovering at home. He gets a weekly payment from the government, and he says his health is OK. But he wants an investigation into what has gone on in the meat factories. “I’m so angry – how can a government allow this? They forgot about us, they did not care. It’s shocking.”
* Names have been changed