Levels of “institutional racism and discrimination” in the health service reportedly led to a serious data breach in Ireland. It occurred when employers were told of coronavirus (Covid-19) test results before meat factory workers who were tested.
Edel McGinley, director of the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland (MRCI), described the practice as a “gross and serious breach of confidentiality”. She told the Special Oireachtas Covid-19 committee that comments made by a senior health official about the scandal were “deeply worrying”.
“Institutional racism and discrimination that led to this very serious data breach”
In May, it was revealed that workers’ test results were being shared first with employers before workers themselves. The incidents relate to widespread screening of meat factory workers. Public health officials were alerting employers in the first instance in an effort to trigger prompt infection control steps.
When the practice was made public, the HSE said it would end. However, McGinley said it remains “unclear” if new guidelines or training have been issued for staff who are carrying out contact tracing in factories. She added:
Deeply worrying are the revelations made by Director of Public Health in the mid-west, Dr Mai Mannix, while speaking at a HSE briefing on 5 June.
Her comments reveal a level of institutional racism and discrimination that led to this very serious data breach.
Dr Mannix had been speaking about the length of time it took to contact people who do not speak English. McGinley claimed these comments discriminate against people from a migrant background and are in breach of their public sector duty. She added:
This undermines trust in the HSE, leaving workers and their families exposed, and without accessible information to isolate if necessary
Irish meat factories have been hit with clusters of cases, with more than 800 workers infected with the virus so far. Research carried out by MRCI revealed that almost half of workers feel that their employers do not enforce coronavirus safety measures. While 48% said there are still not sufficient measures in place.
The report also found that in workplaces with clusters, just 30% of workers felt their employers took effective action to keep them safe. And 67% claimed their employer had not done enough to prioritise their safety.
McGinley called for a taskforce to be set up to look at the terms and conditions for workers. She also raised issues around work permits, describing how difficult it is for workers to assert their rights. She added:
Workers report to us that they cannot choose not to come to work if ill, or seek improved conditions for fear of losing their employment permit and immigration status
Sinn Fein’s Matt Cathy queried whether any staff returned to work before they received their coronavirus test results.
Brid McKeown, workplace rights coordinator at MRCI, said some staff only received their results when they approached their employer. She told the committee:
We also have anecdotal evidence that some felt their employers were withholding positive results from workers who were not displaying symptoms to keep up production efforts
“Largest systemic work exploitation”
Labour TD Duncan Smith said the meat processing factories are the “largest systemic work exploitation” in the State. He added:
Were there any incidents where the State provided protective equipment in meat plants? It is my view that, not only have many employers let these workers down, but the State have abandoned the workers in these plants.
Of the people we spoke to, 15% didn’t have contracts, 9% weren’t sure if they had contracts and a further 13% said their contracts didn’t reflect their terms and conditions.
We have heard recent reports that over the last two years, workers are being given new contracts on the factory floor and told to sign them. The contracts are in English and they haven’t been translated or explained and are intimated when there is resistance to sign contracts.
Migrant workers are extremely poorly treated, there is a day-to-day lack of respect and value bestowed and a huge lack of trust from workers.
The main nationalities are Polish, Lithuanian, Romanian, Latvian, Moldovan, Slovakian, Brazilian, South African, Botswanan and Filipino.
Workers also reported to the MRCI that EU and non-EU migrant workers are over-represented on the factory floors, meaning they are on lower paid jobs.
The Department of Health announced on 9 July that a further six people diagnosed with coronavirus in Ireland have died. It brings the total number of deaths linked to the virus to 1,743. A further 23 cases of the virus have also been confirmed, bringing the overall number to 25,565.
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