Although conditions within refrigerated meat processing factories have been cited as a risk factor for coronavirus transmission, Unite said there is also a direct correlation between the treatment of migrant staff as ‘disposable assets’ and the spread of the disease in such environments.
This is 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 individuals with Covid-19 going into work because they cannot afford to take time off.
The union also raised concerns about track and trace record keeping for agency workers, such as production line staff and cleaners, who often work at multiple sites and whose contact details may not be available or could be overlooked during infection control procedures.
Industry employment standards are also directly linked to overcrowded housing which are a contributing factor to the risk of outbreaks within factories.
A recent Unite survey, comprising of 20 per cent of the workforce at a Covid-19 impacted meat processing plant staffed overwhelmingly by migrant workers, found that 43 per cent of respondents live with two or more colleagues (at least three to a house) and 11 per cent live with five or more.
Nearly 65 per cent of the 150 respondents said they have attended work whilst unwell, with 69 per cent of those doing so because they could not afford to lose pay. Just 10 per cent of respondents said they have been tested for Covid-19.
Unite national officer Bev Clarkson said: “Exploitation driven by corporate greed is a major factor in the public health emergencies amongst meat processing plants here and in other countries.
“Migrant workers, who often do not speak English and are scared to speak out because they fear losing their jobs, suffer under a relentless system that long predates Covid-19 in which they are treated without dignity or respect. Exploitation is so rife within the sector that Unite is also concerned that some workers are vulnerable to modern slavery.
“This issue is now being brought to public attention because of its impact on the UK’s ability to stem the virus. People can see that the treatment of staff in the sector as disposable assets is unjust, unsustainable and a danger to public health.
“As a priority, employers and government must end the terrible situation where workers are having to choose between self-isolating or going into work because they cannot afford to be ill. Unite also has concerns over whether employers are able to provide contact details for agency workers, who often work at multiple sites under murky employment structures, to facilitate track and trace efforts.
“It is imperative that ministers and industry commit to a root and branch reform of the meat processing sector. The dire working conditions, low pay and insecure employment that blight the industry and have now come back to bite the nation’s efforts to defeat the coronavirus must be addressed.”