The Chairperson of Meat Industry Ireland has said that the situation with regard to Covid-19 in the sector has significantly improved.

There are currently no active cases of the virus and 97% of people who had the virus have now recovered and are back at work.

The outbreak of the coronavirus at meat plants is under scrutiny at today's Oireachtas Special Committee on Covid-19 Response.

The meeting, which began at noon, is being attended by representatives of the meat industry and a group representing migrant workers.

MII chairperson Philip Carroll said that the industry continues to remain vigilant and has measures in place to help curtail the spread of the virus.

He said the first Covid-19 case in a meat plant was on 17 March, adding that businesses quickly responded when cases were discovered. He said the objective of plants was to "keep people safe" when issues arose.

Since the start of the pandemic, 1,115 cases of the virus were confirmed in 20 clusters at meat and poultry plants, but there have been no new cases since the middle of last month.

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Meanwhile, Sinn Fein TD Matt Carthy raised reports to NEPHT which said that there were no concerns about employers complying with Covid-19 restrictions and measures in meat factories.

Mr Carthy said that the report from Department officials was at odds with what the Migrants Rights Centre was reporting.

He asked "who was lying to who?"

The Migrants Rights Centre said that it would not call anyone liars, but questioned how the kind of concerns being raised by workers, were not obvious.

The Sinn Féin Agriculture Spokesperson said it was "bizarre" that there was not more clarity around the number of migrant workers involved in the meat sector. 

Meat Industry Ireland has said that 30% of workers in the sector are Irish, with the remainder being either non EU or EU citizens.

Director Joe Ryan said that with near full employment, finding labour can often be difficult.

The industry group also said that it had no issue with unannounced inspections from the Health and Safety Authority.

The Migrants Rights Centre has said that the decision by the HSE to inform employers of workers' Covid-19 test results was an effort to "cut corners".

Edel McGinley said the issue is that workers were not told first.

Ms McGinley of the Migrants Rights Centre said that the release of Covid-19 test results to employers before workers was "gravely" and "deeply concerning". 

She said that comments from public servants that communication issues and language barriers meat informing employers was preferable, were not acceptable.

She said plants should be closed if there are further outbreaks and a task force needs to be setup to examine terms and conditions for workers in the sector.

The Migrants Rights Centre has said there are 15, 338 workers in the meat sector of which 58% are migrant workers.

The centre also detailed conversations it had with 68 workers in the sector. 

A quarter of the workers said they were not paid overtime and 90% claimed their employer did not provide a sick pay scheme.

40% of workers interviewed said they did not feel safe in their work environment despite measures implemented by employers.

70% of the workers that were interviewed said they do not live with co-workers.

The centre said that the working conditions for staff are not as regulated as the food safety and other measures in the agri-food sector.

FG T.D Colm Burke said that the Committee should write to the HSE to seek an explanation for what happened.

Meanwhile, trade union SIPTU has said it should have been invited to address the committee.

In a statement issued this morning, trade union SIPTU said the meat industry had refused to engage with the union on issues in the sector.

Greg Ennis of the union said: "SIPTU representatives have requested that we be given the opportunity to address a further sitting of this Committee on the meat processing industry, as we believe the evidence we would give orally, as well as through our previously submitted paper, will greatly assist its work.

"It will also ensure that we learn from our recent experiences, so that we can prevent a 'second wave' of Covid-19 spreading through meat processing plans as has occurred in other countries."

The union had been working jointly with the Migrants Rights Centre to address concerns about the impact on workers in the sector.