The British Meat Processors Association (BMPA) has described union claims that cases of COVID-19 in UK abattoirs are linked to migrant worker exploitation as ‘false and misleading’.
Responding to some high-profile cases of COVID-19 in meat plants, the Unite Union said the link between the outbreaks and ‘widespread exploitation of migrant workers on low pay and insecure contracts must be addressed’.
Although conditions within refrigerated meat processing factories have been cited as a risk factor, Unite claimed there was also a direct correlation between the treatment of migrant staff as ‘disposable assets’ and the spread of the disease in such environments.
It said this was particularly true in meat processing factories that do not provide staff that need to self-isolate with company sick pay or any other form of financial support, as it increases the danger of infected individuals going into work because they cannot afford to take time off.
Unite also claimed Industry employment standards are also directly linked to overcrowded housing which are a contributing factor to the risk of outbreaks within factories.
Unite national officer Bev Clarkson called for ministers and industry commit to a root and branch reform of the meat processing sector, addressing ‘dire working conditions, low pay and insecure employment’.
There have been cases of COVID-19 at UK meat plants, including at a Tulip plant in the West Midlands where 35 people have tested positive for the virus, and at a 2 Sisters chicken plant in Anglesey.
However, the problem in the UK has not been on the scale seen in some countries, particularly the US where at one point nearly half of pork processing capacity was lost due to COVID-19 plants closures, and various EU countries, including Germany, where 1,500 people have tested positive at a Tonnies plant, forcing its closure.
‘Claims don’t reflect reality’
The BMPA insisted some of the claims being made about the UK meat plant outbreaks ‘don’t accurately reflect the reality of what is happening throughout most of the UK meat industry’.
Contrary to Unite’s claims of a systemic problem, it said only 10 out of 1079 UK meat plants (less than 1%) have experienced instances of COVID-19 over what’s already prevalent in the wider community, with infection rates generally mirroring what’s happening elsewhere in the population.
The association stressed that there has been no indication from Government that they see a particular problem with the meat industry.
BMPA chief executive Nick Allen addressed some of Unite’s ‘sweeping claims’ of ‘low pay and insecure employment’, pointing out that their figures come from a survey of just 150 people at one of the affected plants.
The reality across the vast majority of the industry is quite different, Mr Allen added. “Our members, who process 80% of all the beef, lamb and pork in Britain, consistently experience a shortage of skilled labour which our new report “Labour in the Meat Industry” explains in detail,” he said.
“Far from offering insecure or zero-hours contracts (which are usually associated with an over-supply of labour), our members seek to hold on to their staff by offering them stable, permanent employment and a fair wage. Indeed, most overseas workers typically stay for two years or more”.
Initial results from a survey this week of BMPA members are showing that, of the companies that have responded, the average number of staff on zero-hours contracts is less than 0.5%.
Contrary to Unite’s claims, conditions at BMPA members’ plants are far from ‘dire’ and are tightly regulated, he added. “Our member companies work to strict hygiene and safety controls imposed by the Food Standards Authority, Public Health England and the Health and Safety Executive. While working temperatures are necessarily cold in parts of the factory, workers are given the protective clothing and equipment they need to keep them and the food they produce safe.
“These highly regulated working conditions apply equally to all staff from the skilled butchers in the boning and cutting halls to the support staff who keep the canteens and offices running; it’s one standard for everybody”.
Since March, BMPA’s members have spent millions of pounds following Government guidance on how to make working conditions as safe as possible to allow food production to continue, with measures such as Perspex screens, staggered shifts, one-way systems, temperature testing and extra PPE have become standard, the association added.
“The nature of all chilled food production, just like the nature of other key worker settings means that, even when all Government guidance is followed, risks cannot be completely eliminated. And it is not practical to simply shut down all plants (as has happened with non-essential manufacturing) because of the strategic importance of maintaining the country’s food supply,” it said.
“Food manufacturers have been learning and adapting throughout the current pandemic and have been putting in place measures across their sites to mitigate as much risk as possible. However, employers have no control over what happens outside of working hours.”
BMPA has been working closely with Government to set up a special food industry task force that will allow industry to collaborate with local authorities, standards agencies, health officials and Government to tackle a broad range of issues including COVID-19, labour shortages and supply chain resilience.
The group will also work on ways to mitigate the ongoing risk and keep production operating smoothly and safely.