The invisible migrant workers who support Ireland’s € 4 billion meat industry | Meat industry
IIn the spring of 2018, Alina Serbenco’s husband Vasile was sitting in a fast food shop in Dublin, plugging his cell phone into an outlet to charge it. It had only been a few months since he moved from Romania to work in a car wash, but he was getting less than half the minimum wage and couldn’t send any money home to Alina and her two children. Homeless and living in a car, Vasile desperately needed a new job.
While scrolling through Facebook, he saw an ad for a job in a meat factory. It was published by the Irish employment agency AA Euro, a specialist recruitment agency Working with companies in the agricultural, food, construction and mining industries with offices across the EU, including Romania, Poland and the Netherlands. The job offer included up to 70 hours per week for just above the minimum wage and a room in a house for around 60 euros per week. Vasile decided to apply.
He secured the job at the meat factory and told Alina that she could get a job there too. Alina and her children moved within a few months and are looking forward to a new life together in Ireland. But their situation quickly became complicated.
Alina and Vasile’s agency contracts were in Romanian and Polish. What they said they do not know, says Alina, that by signing the contract they became independent contractors in Poland and were paid from the Polish income through a Polish subsidiary of the agency. None of them had even visited Poland. As a result, they were unable to pay taxes, social security contributions, social assistance, sickness benefits, child benefits or health insurance cards in Ireland. As EU citizens, they suddenly felt like undocumented migrants. “We were invisible,” says Alina. “We didn’t exist in Ireland.”
Alina says her job at the factory was packing up to 20,000 chicken breasts a day for sale in supermarkets and restaurants across Ireland and Northern Ireland. “I sat there all day weighing the chicken and then putting a plastic seal on it. I had to stay in the same place for five hours with my head bowed. It’s a cold place and I’ve had kidney infections a lot, ”she says. “If I had my period, I would have to argue with the manager to go to the bathroom.”
AA Euro directors say the company has no control over factory conditions and “no worker worked an average of 42 hours a week in the factory”. They say AA Euro Recruitment Poland Sp. Zoo, a Polish company, recruited and hired workers to work in Europe, however, stopped supplying workers to Ireland in 2019. “These workers were paid more than if they were contracted locally,” they say. “The possibility of an employment contract existed outside of AA Euro Recruitment Poland Sp. The authority of the zoo could only be sanctioned by the factory.”
“We are not dependent on temporary workers”
About 15,000 people job in Ireland’s major slaughterhouses and processing plants and an estimated 70% are migrants. They serve Ireland’s export-oriented meat and livestock industry valued at $ 4 billion. lands in the UK.
The exact extent of the outsourced workforce in the industry is unclear. The Irish Labor Inspectorate, Workplace Relations Commission (WRC), claims it has no data on the number of meat workers hired by agencies and subcontractors. According to the Meat Industry Ireland (MII) Meat Processing Representative Group, the meat processors business model is based on full-time direct employment and agencies and subcontractors represent “less than 2%” of their members’ workforce. “Claims of high dependency on agency workers or subcontractors are incorrect,” said Cormac Healy, senior director of the group.
But Greg Ennis from that Siptu union, which represents 6,500 meat workers, says a fifth of workers are hired through agencies and subcontractors.
The Irish Labor Inspectorate, which has 53 inspectors, informed the Guardian that the meat processing sector is considered a “risk sector” due to non-compliance with labor law. Between 2015 and 2020, violations of labor law in relation to wages, working hours, inadequate records and work permit issues were found in almost half of all controls in meat plants. The supervisory authority is also responsible for regulating employment agencies; In the past two years, 1.3% of all agencies were inspected, 40% of which were illegal.
It comes a year after a parliamentary committee examined the state’s response to Covid-19. Since the pandemic began, there have been 126 outbreaks in meat factories and just over 3,600, according to the Irish Department of Health Workers have become infected. Union officials told the committee that they believed there had been “chronic worker abuse” – a claim that MII strongly denied that it was “unfounded”. The unions have called for better enforcement and regulation of agency employment.
The committee recommended the establishment of an investigation to investigate the activities of the meat industry and the use of agents to recruit labor. But no action was taken. The chairman of the committee, politician Michael McNamara, describes the government’s inaction as “a disappointment”.
The Guardian has spoken to other workers who say AA Euro has used them as self-employed contractors in Poland. “I don’t know how they opened this company for me because I’ve never been to Poland,” says a worker who earned 10.10 euros an hour. “They said to me, ‘If you want to work with us, sign here. If not, there is the door – you can go home. ‘”
“People are not safe at work”
“This gives you full control over your workforce,” says Nora Labo, who worked for the Independent Workers’ Union (IWU) until the beginning of the year. “It’s a way to avoid all of the checks and balances required by Irish labor law.” Labo says that by making workers self-employed, agencies and meat mills can dispose of them “at will”. “People are not safe at work; they do not accumulate service time on the job. They have no rental contracts for their accommodation and evictions are occurring. It is very practical that they are declared in Poland because there is no way of tracking them. “
Another worker, Florin Ghituca, says after starting the factory in 2019 he realized that his contract meant that services would be outsourced to AA Euro by a Polish company. “After a few months, my friend told me that we were being paid through a Polish subsidiary. I said, ‘Come on, that’s ridiculous, you can’t do that’. I didn’t believe it. I had an Irish bank account. How could my wages be paid in Poland? I found out through conversations on the factory floor, ”he says. “I knew that would rob me of my rights.”
Alina says the agency deducted the per person rent for accommodation in a three-bedroom house shared with a male worker. “It was almost all of my wages – I had € 70 (£ 60) left in the first month. I cried in the locker rooms. ”She says her records show the agency deducted € 30 (£ 27.75) a month for bank transfers and around € 250 (£ 214.50) for Polish taxes.
With all of her taxes and social security contributions being paid through Poland, Alina was unable to seek financial support for her children from the Irish authorities, such as a grant for her son’s school bus, and she struggled to afford food. “I borrowed money for milk. My son’s teacher gave me a 200 euro voucher for the supermarket – she knew we had nothing to eat. “
“The only thing that is important to them is the meat”
Alina says she repeatedly asked the agency for an Irish employment contract, but it didn’t materialize. “It was like a ping-pong game – the agency sent me to the factory bosses who sent me to speak to the agency.” A few months later, she decided to quit. She says the factory promised her an Irish contract, “but the day before the due date they said I wouldn’t get it for a few months. I took off my work clothes and left the job on the spot. “
Alina kept her correspondence, messages and papers and filed a complaint with the WRC. She also sought advice from the IWU in Cork, which filed 400 complaints on behalf of 100 temporary workers from Romania, Moldova, Slovakia and Poland alleging discrimination against their rights.
The directors of AA Euro comment on these allegations, saying the WRC cases are “false, annoying and without justification”. They state that the company provides accommodation to new workers who cannot find accommodation at the beginning of their employment. “They have every option to move into their own accommodation as we work on a cost basis and this is not the mainstay of our business,” they say. “There has been no eviction of workers.”
Ghituca turned to social media to make his voice heard. He posted on the social media ad page of a retailer selling poultry products from the factory and expressed his feelings about life as a meat worker in an agency. When the agency found out about the posts, they conducted an investigation and Ghituca was suspended for six weeks. He was then dismissed without notice by the agency for gross misconduct.
Ghituca is back in Romania while Alina and Vasile work together as cleaners in Cork. Alina says she will never work in a meat factory again. “There are other sectors where you get better paid for work in better conditions, where you have more respect, where you can go to the bathroom, have a day off when you need it, and you get sick pay,” she says says. “The only thing that matters to them is the meat. They don’t care about people. “
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