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WORKERS on food-production lines are being herded together because the government has not enforced the two-metre-distancing rule for the industry, union Unite said today.
The union has called on Environment, Food & Rural Affairs Secretary George Eustice to make social distancing compulsory to protect food workers and supplies from the coronavirus.
Unite has thousands of members in the food-processing sector, including in abattoirs.
The union said that mandatory enforcement by ministers should also encompass retail outlets, including supermarkets, during the emergency.
Calls for urgent action are intensifying in Britain after last week’s walkout by 1,000 workers at the Seagoe Moy Park poultry production site in Portadown, Northern Ireland, over concerns about basic health and safety protections for workers.
Unite national officer for the food industry Bev Clarkson said: “The lack of the mandatory imposition of the two-metre rule by government is a problem currently nationwide.
“Ministers need to make the two-metre rule mandatory as a matter of urgency across food processing and also in the retail sector.
“As a society, we have quickly recognised that food production and the retail sector are key areas in maintaining adequate food supplies and keeping people’s morale high.”
Ms Clarkson said that she has been in contact with every meat supplier where the union has recognition about the issue.
She found that while some employers are introducing social distancing wherever possible, they are not implementing it on production lines because the government has not stated that it is mandatory within the sector.
“We have strenuously put it to them that if they do not implement it on production lines then the virus could spread rapidly throughout the factories,” Ms Clarkson said.
“I have put a number of proposals forward, such as slowing the lines down, enabling them to pull people off the lines and do it on a rotation, as well as putting Perspex screens up.
“I have been informed that production is up by at least 40 per cent on all poultry meat sites because of the increase in demand.
“However, I pointed out that if the virus spreads in the factories, then they won’t have enough staff to continue production.”
A Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) spokesperson said: “Government guidance clearly sets out the importance of staying two metres apart from other people at all times and employers – including food businesses – are expected to follow this guidance.
“If circumstances in the food production environment means that they cannot ensure social distancing, employers must put other measures in place to protect their employees.”
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