Opinion: Meat workers fight battle in small towns

New safety standards have been put in place for the meat processing industry. PHOTO: ODT FILES
New safety standards have been put in place for the meat processing industry. PHOTO: ODT FILES
Meat processing workers are among the heroes in our community, writes Meat Industry Association chief executive Tim Ritchie.

Right  now, millions of New Zealanders are in a lockdown, following the Government’s announcement last week that the country is in Alert Level 4.

However, the situation is quite different for the many people who work in jobs considered essential services — healthcare professionals, border agencies, media, public safety and local and national government.

But also playing a critical but less visible role are more than 25,000 Kiwis working in the red meat processing sector. That’s because the Government has recognised the importance of the food production sector and classified meat processing companies as an essential service.

The vast majority of people in the meat processing sector live and work in our rural and regional communities. Towns such as Mataura and Dargaville are all on the frontline as we unite to fight Covid-19.

For us, they are among the country’s unsung heroes. Their dedication to helping ensure our supermarket chillers are stocked, food can be put on the table and we can continue to export products to our global markets and bring back the very necessary foreign exchange to buy fuel and medicine, should be applauded by all New Zealanders.

Of course, we know some of our people will be concerned and worried by the risk of Covid-19 when they come into work. That is understandable and natural. This situation is unprecedented and requires an unprecedented response from all of us.

The health and wellbeing of our people is our absolute priority because they are our greatest asset. Without their help, we have no hope of delivering for the country.

That’s why the safety standards the meat processing industry is now putting in place are so important. The Meat Industry Association has been working with the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) on a MIA Protocol — an Industry Standard, which defines a strict set of rules and requirements to ensure the sector’s continuing operations do not compromise worker safety or contribute to the spread of the disease.

To keep plant employees safe, the sector has introduced new ways of working at the plants across the country. There is a comprehensive schedule of requirements including physical distancing, personal hygiene, transport to and from work, further increased cleaning/disinfection of processing areas and the use of personal protective equipment.

Workers also have a responsibility to each other to adhere to the lockdown requirements when not at work, in order to not bring the disease into the workplace and compromise the safety of their fellow workers and the operation of the essential service. There will be verification processes to ensure that plants are sticking to the rules.

These safety standards and operating procedures which form the basis of the MIA Protocol have been developed based on the best science available, including from the World Health Organisation and advice from the Ministry of Health.

There has also been close consultation between our companies with their workers and the Meat Workers Union.

Keeping our plants operating is not just important to keep food on the table.

We need to process farmers’ livestock to prevent animal welfare issues and maintain farmer wellbeing, especially in areas where there are extreme dry conditions or drought. Farmers have no alternatives, especially as we move into the winter months when there is little to no grass growth.

If you know of a meat processing worker out there in your community, please make a point of thanking them.

They and others working in essential services are heroes for putting the country and community first.

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