Covid and Class Struggle in Ireland's Meat Plants


A fresh outbreak of Covid 19 in a meat plant in Waterford this week brings to a total of 44 the number of clusters in meat plants across the State in the past 6 months, or some 1,600 confirmed cases of the virus. One cluster is unfortunate, two might be carelessness, but forty-four is capitalism. The sustained outbreaks of COVID 19 in Ireland’s meat plants reveal how the meat industry and its management really operate on the basis of unchecked power and exploitation. And that’s a problem for us all. 


Photo: Standing room only. Meat plant workers on the 6am bus to work in Waterford.

Credit: @Deisesupes



The Workers

There are some 15,338 meat plant workers in Ireland; 8,896 are migrant workers. The majority come from Poland, Lithuania, Romania, Latvia, Moldova, Slovakia, Brazil, South Africa, Botswana and the Philippines. While meat plants are traditionally known for bad practice, these workers are exploited in the extreme. The work is hard and the pace of production is high. Migrant workers in Ireland work on average 4.7 weeks per year more than their EU counterparts but rank bottom of the list on actual hourly wages received. Unlike in Ireland, EU employers pay high levels of employer social insurance which translates into (some) illness benefits for workers. In contrast, 80-90% of migrant workers in Irish meat plants do not have access to a company sick pay scheme. Workers often do not receive any induction into their work in their own language. 


And the exploitation does not stop there. Like the old company towns in the United States, meat plants or their work placement agencies frequently double as landlords and make wage deductions for accommodation. This situation also gives bosses a heightened power (and sense of entitlement) over migrant workers’ lives. Some years ago, I recall a meat plant owner in Roscommon had an employee break into the room of a sacked Brazillian worker and remove all his belongings. These ‘bully-boy’ tactics earned the boss a fine of 200 pound only. Of course, the experts on these power relations are the meat plant workers themselves, some of whom spoke to the press about their experience recently:


“My boss curses and shouts at me. I suffered so much that I went to the doctor and he gave me medication for depression. When I took time off because of a work injury my boss kept calling me threatening that I would lose my job if I didn’t come back. I got no payment when I was off sick. In the end I had to convince my doctor to let me go back to work early.”


“We’re very exposed and it’s nearly impossible to stop the spread on the factory floor. But they don’t care as long as production continues.”


“If someone got a cough they’re sent home without pay and can only come back once they have a negative coronavirus test...This is not to protect other workers, it’s just to keep the factory open.”


The Bosses

The meat sector in Ireland, from farm through to processing and export, remains one of the most important indigenous industries, generating total sales of €4.5bn and exports amounting to €4bn. The sector plans to grow exports by in excess of €1bn by 2025. Looking at the top ten companies operating in the sector, the top company had a turnover of €2.3bn in 2019, and the second company had a turnover of €2.2bn. So there is money to be made. And there is intense competition over who is going to make it. The sector is highly fragmented with over 140 businesses involved. The five largest are Dawn Meats Group, Kepak Group, ABP Food Group Ireland, Liffey Meats, and Rosderra Irish Meats Group. Of these, only Dawn Meats holds a market share greater than 5%. These companies, in turn, typically outsource their recruitment by paying work placement agencies to recruit and house migrant workers.


Profitability in the meat industry rests on exploiting nature, farmers, and workers. In the case of nature, Ireland’s dominant model of agricultural production is effectively premised on ignoring carbon emissions and denying climate change. For farmers, as evidenced by their protests last year, the price they receive from factories does not meet the cost of production. In order to drive profitability, farmers are driven more and more towards creating grassland monocultures which do not support wildlife and require fossil fuel dependent fertilisers. These practices in turn pollute local water systems and damage the natural environment. Worse, the overall sector is heavily subsidised and underpinned by an unequally distributed system of EU farm payments that prioritise beef barons’ profits over sustaining family farms, quality employment, or vibrant rural communities. Small wonder that the farming industry is the original inspiration for today’s overall model of economic development in Ireland where, as Conor McCabe has documented extensively, rentier extractions of subsidies and surplus value by middle-men take priority over all other considerations. In the case of meat plant workers, the bosses’ focus is on keeping the production lines as fast and as lean as possible. They work people as hard as they can for as little as they can for as long as they can. In all this, the companies’ long-term disregard for workers’ well-being is assisted by the state’s hands-off approach to effective regulation.  


The Clusters


Since March, a total of 44 Covid 19 clusters have occurred in meat plants across the state, directly linked to some 1,600 confirmed cases of the virus. Virus clusters do not just fall from the sky. They don’t just happen. They are caused. A major industrial accident will often be accompanied, in the preceding period, by a host of minor accidents sharing similar underlying causes. In much the same way, the scale of the Covid 19 outbreaks this summer come as no surprise to anyone familiar with working conditions in the meat industry. These underlying causes are obvious enough. Workers without sick pay, secure employment, or work visas will have no choice but to go to work and sometimes go to work sick. Workers in overcrowded accommodation without public transport have no possibility of social distancing. In other words, responsibility for the clusters rests firmly with those responsible for creating these conditions in order to benefit from them. 


The Covid 19 clusters have occurred because management at meat plants either ignored or deprioritised public health advice. They did this because of cost reasons or because of a conflict of interest, that is, they opposed production being shut down. On the contrary, many took advantage of the pandemic to increase production. In doing so, they jeopardise the health and safety of workers and the wider community in which they live. Workers who were tested for Covid-19 at one meat plant in the midlands in early August were allowed to return to work in the factory before their test results became available. Dozens subsequently received positive test results and then had to go into quarantine. In the intervening period they had all been working in the factory and living in local communities. It is little surprise that a lockdown of counties Kildare, Offaly and Laois occurred soon after. And as for the state, management clearly does not fear serious regulation or penalty to deter their actions. This is not a natural state of affairs. It does not have to be this way.


The Resistance: Workers’ Solidarity


The alternative to capitalist competition and exploitation is workers’ solidarity and mutual aid. The pandemic has occasioned many examples of this. In the absence of sick pay, migrant workers themselves have clubbed together and donated money to look after their friends and fellow workers. Prevention being better than cure, many workers began confronting managers over their unsafe working conditions. At one plant in West Cork, when workers with very obvious symptoms were being pressured by their boss to continue working, a significant number of workers began walking off the job in protest. The trade union movement has responded and increased efforts to unionise migrant workers are now underway. Within the framework of social partnership, SIPTU, which represents 6,000 workers in the meat industry, is in discussions with government and employers’ group Meat Industry Ireland to introduce a new Charter of Workplace Safety. Outside of social partnership, the Independent Workers’ Union has helped file hundreds of complaints to the Workplace Relations Commission. (Organiser Nora Labo’s work with the IWU is covered here). As important as these steps are, for real and meaningful improvement in the lives of meat plant workers, something more than advocacy and case work will be required to break the power of the beef barons.


Anarchism Anyone? Direct action gets the goods


Management at meat plants are able to ignore public health advice because large numbers of workers are currently unorganised, non-unionised, atomised and, in some cases, fearful. The mainstream media rarely highlight this particular, power-related aspect of the meat plant clusters. The most important reason being that they, like any other businesses, support, first and foremost, the "right to manage". According to this "right", business bosses everywhere can only function by having the unquestioned right to order people around. Management give orders: workers carry them out. This is regarded as the "natural order" - by the media as much as by anyone else. It is viewed as the only way that things can work - or, to put it another way, the only way that money can be made.


But what is so "natural" about this way of doing things - particularly when major virus clusters result time and again? Absolutely nothing is the answer. What is really being defended is the right of bosses to operate in a non-democratic way. For safety to be properly protected in any industrial enterprise, workers - who often see the problems first hand - would have to have a real say in management decisions and what priorities should be. But such an idea is treated as poison by bosses everywhere, in newspapers and television as much as in the meat industry. Anarchists argue that democratic ownership of workplaces is a crucial issue. The meat industry is a particularly good example of it. Right now it is organised in a non-democratic, hierarchical way. And, not surprisingly, the interests of farmers, workers, and the broader health of the public are second fiddle to those of the real powerbrokers - the beef barons and the shareholders. But such a way of organising things is not set in stone. It can and must be changed. 

In No Shortcuts, the labour organiser Jane McAlevey argues that working class people can improve their lives by withdrawing their labour together and that the gains made by movements past centred on mass organizing to enable strike action and collective bargaining. A full chapter is devoted to a successful organising strategy in meat plants in rural North Carolina that saw thousands of workers strike to win wage increases and improved conditions. In order to win (and win big), contemporary unions and social movements in Ireland similarly need strong, democratic unions that leave power in the hands of workers, as well as community level organisations that recall unions to wider social objectives. Suppressing the coronavirus fits the bill of a widely shared social objective at the present moment. Despite the media’s signal boosting of bosses and vested interests, polls regularly indicate widespread support for public health measures and restrictions. In a situation that demands collective action to ensure health and safety, meat plant bosses are effectively free riding on the wider public’s efforts and sacrifices to make a profit. Workers and union organisers that adopt a mass organising strategy to enable strike action and collective bargaining may find that they have untapped pools of support in the wider community. In times of pandemic, an injury to one really is the concern of all.