‘Everyone’s on top of you, sneezing and coughing’: life inside Ireland’s meat plants | Environment

Mbow * felt the phlegm build up heavily on his chest for five days before calling the local health center and saying he worked at the meat factory. It was tested in a few hours – the result was positive.

"One hundred percent, I know I got it at the factory," he says. "If the disease was in the animals, they would have closed the place. But for workers, the factories can do whatever they want."


Marco is one of several employees who have contacted the Guardian about conditions in some slaughterhouses since the pandemic began. Speaking on condition of anonymity, factory workers in Ireland and northern Ireland say that not enough was done at the beginning of the outbreak to minimize exposure and that while some protective measures are in place, they still do not feel safe at work.

For Marco, who has worked at the same factory for over a decade, it is too little, too late. "I was scared," he says. "The damage has already been done."

Life as a meat factory worker is a bloody, low-wage business, workers told the Guardian. "It's horrible to kill cows when you see how they do it," says Florin *, a Romanian worker who worked in a meat factory in the Republic of Ireland for more than five years said. “They kill – shoot, 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 living to being in pieces. This is the way. When you see the conditions – it's a dirty and unpleasant place, nobody is happy. ”Factory temperatures can hover at 4 ° C, with industrial ceiling fans that circulate fresh air to keep the meat free from microbes. The work is repetitive and difficult; workers take painkillers to go through their shifts.


Now countries across the world with industrialized meat supply chains facing severe coronavirus outbreaks in processed meats and plants. Official data show that there were outbreaks in 12 plants in the Republic of Ireland and 571 workers tested positive. In Northern Ireland, union officials raised serious concernsand, last week, a worker died.

Workers point to bottlenecks in bathrooms and toilets; the changing rooms, where workers huddle 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 meter or less, in addition to colleagues on the production line.

They say the factories have not made sure that workers have personal protective equipment or comply with social detachment guidelines. "There was no social distance," 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 ours," said Florin. "People are scared, they say it's not safe."


In addition to the lack of safety equipment, the fact that migrants constitute the vast majority of the workforce in the meat industry is also an issue, with many traveling 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 infections.


In general, migrant workers have established themselves well in Irish life. Pablo *, who was recruited in his hometown in Africa, says he has always felt welcome by the local population. But at the factory, where he earns about 11.80 euros an hour, life is difficult. Workers feel intimidated and vulnerable and are unable to defend their legal rights, he says. "People are not being treated with dignity and respect."

Pablo says that, until a few weeks ago, in addition to publishing government notices about Covid-19 on the walls, his factory did not install anything to protect its workers. “There was no verification of temperature, masks, or social distance of 2 meters. When we asked for masks, they said no. ”He says he doesn't feel safe at work and is sure he will be infected with the virus. "New workers are hired to replace people who are sick, but we don't know if they have been screened."

Because of their low wages, many migrant workers live in community homes and some have to share rooms. "They don't feel safe, but they have to work," says Adriana *, a Polish worker at a meat factory in Northern Ireland. Perspex screens exist in parts of the factory and workers' temperatures are now checked, but there is still no distance within the factory, and workers are afraid.

Santos *, a Brazilian worker at a meat factory south of the border, says that many of his co-workers have low levels of English and are unaware of their rights, such as social support if they are sick. “If these people have the virus, who will help them? How are they going to get food?

After his positive diagnosis for the virus, Marco is now recovering at home. He receives a weekly payment from the government and says his health is good. But he wants an investigation into what happened at the meat factories. "I'm so mad – how can a government allow that? They forgot about us, they didn't care. It's shocking."

* Names have been changed

We want to hear from you about your experiences and stories from within the agricultural industry. Please get in touch. You can contact us at: animalsfarmed@theguardian.com

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