Meat plant workers concerned at treatment

Workers at the Finegand freezing works practise the 2m social distancing rule while working for...
Workers at the Finegand freezing works practise the 2m social distancing rule while working for an essential service. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Some workers at the Silver Fern Farms Finegand freezing works say they are not receiving the correct protective gear to work during the Covid-19 outbreak and keeping a distance of 2m between staff was not realistic.

The country has been in a nationwide lockdown since last Thursday but some essential services remain open, such as freezing works.

A woman who worked at Finegand and spoke in anonymity said last week she and others were not supplied with "the correct PPE [personal protective equipment] gear, if any".

"And we’ve been told to be two metres away from others but that’s just really unrealistic in [this] type of work."

She said she felt her voice and others’ were not being listened to by management at the freezing works.

"If we walk off the job, we won’t get the subsidy, and if we stay at work, we risk getting Covid-19 due to being in close proximity to lots of other people."

"We don’t see the point in having a lockdown when we’re in close contact with others and going home to our partners and children that are vulnerable [and we are] risking giving it to them."

A man whose wife had worked at Finegand for more than 20 years said nothing had changed as of Thursday last week.

"They’re still working shoulder-to-shoulder. There’s no masks or anything in sight.

"On Thursday, the production manager had a meeting with them and said, ‘We’ve got no masks — we’re trying to get them but we’ve got none’."

The man said the production manager told staff that if they no longer attended work out of fear they would get the virus, that was when their "off-season" would begin.

The usual production ends in August for six weeks for maintenance to be carried out and staff usually take a break for several weeks.

"So he threatened them with the sack and I thought that was pretty rough."

The man said he was worried about the buses still being offered to workers all around the region.

About 17 workers had chosen to stop going, the man said.

"They’re still bringing people down from Dunedin on three buses.

"What worries me is, if they have to trace this virus ... how the hell [are they going to] because they’re coming from Port Chalmers and Dunedin, Maori Hill and Pine Hill, Waihola, Clinton," he said.

Silver Fern Farms chief executive Simon Limmer said the protection and wellbeing of staff and the community was the company’s primary responsibility.

‘‘We are currently implementing measures that have been required by the Government and agreed by the Ministry for Primary Industries and the Meat Industry Association to ensure our people are safe.

"The Meat Workers Union have been consulted as we have implemented these changes in what has been a fast-moving process. The changes came in across the course of last week and have been in place since last Friday."

He outlined a list of protocols the company had brought in, including a mapping exercise marking areas where staff could still keep 2m apart from one another.

"This is a huge job across all the 6500 essential workers in our 14 plants," Mr Limmer said.

Other changes to allow for the 2m distance included increased space between workstations and a reduction of processing speed and volumes by 50%.

"This is being continually refined as we make improvements to particular work stations and areas in our plants," Mr Limmer said.

There were cases where a 2m distance could not be achieved and the company was bringing in specific equipment, such as perspex or stainless steel barriers, to separate workers.

Masks were not a requirement if the 2m distance was maintained and Mr Limmer said some 4000 masks had arrived at the plant on Monday morning and would be used in the few cases where 2m was not achieved.

There were also additional cleaning measures, as well as a campaign to remind staff about personal hygiene, Mr Limmer said.

For staff who were well and chose not to go to work out of safety concerns, Mr Limmer said they were needed at the plants.

"All employees who are well are expected to work as an essential service.

"They are needed for our plants to perform their essential service and not put pressure on their colleagues who are working to do their best."

There were exceptions such as staff over 70 (about 40 people at Silver Fern Farms) and those with pre-existing medical conditions, who could self-isolate during the outbreak.

The company has now set up a bus distancing check to make sure all staff are keeping 2m apart while travelling to and from work on the service.

Federated Farmers dairy chairman Mathew Korteweg said farmers were quickly becoming aware of the limitations at places like Finegand.

"Obviously, they’re having to have measures in place with not standing so close so each other and what not.

"That probably cut the output back by half anyway. Then obviously with people being concerned, which is fair enough, not wanting to go to work to put their families at risk as well.

"That’s just the way things seem to be shaping up at the moment."

Mr Korteweg said he had spoken to some prime beef farmers who had been told to hold on to their animals because they could not be processed.

"There’s going to be a real bottleneck once the weather turns to being more winter conditions, which is a bit of a concern.

"There’s not a lot of supplement feed — we’ve had a tough season in our district with the flood in February and pretty poor growing conditions leading up to Christmas — on top of what has been quite a tough farming season and then this as well."



Isn't this essentially the same story the ODT ran a few days ago? Only this time it is accompanied by a photo that shows the company meeting its obligations under COVID-19?

What really was the point?