Tomás Ó Flatharta

Looking at Things from the Left

Keeling’s Fruit Pickers’ Company Places 579 Workers in CoVid-19 Danger – Irish State Authorities Dawdle While Disease Gallops Out of Control

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  • Paul Murphy TD (RISE) “Passed From Billy to Jack” Over Keeling’s Fruit Pickers’ Company’s Failure to Protect its Workers
  • Keelings: Minister Humphreys must give HSA powers to protect workers’ health
  • Advice from two Ministers: go to HSE, yet HSE says it “has no statutory role”

“I have been passed from Billy to Jack in trying to get someone to inspect Keelings to ensure their workers are safe. The HSA has said that they have no powers in overseeing the Covid-19 guidelines, although Minister Humphreys said in a reply to me that she’s talking to her officials about it. The Minister for Finance explicitly said that it is the HSE which oversees them. However, now the HSE has said it is not their role. I have written to Minister Humphreys to urge the government to to urgently address this by extending the powers of the HSA, so Keelings workers and others can be protected.”

Video of engagement with Minister Donohoe in Dáil on 16 April:

https://www.facebook.com/paulmurphytd/videos/277643093252182/.

Keeling’s, Ryanair, Put Workers in Danger

Copy below of letter sent to Minister Heather Humphreys this morning:

27 April 2020

Dear Minister Humphreys,

I am writing to you to raise an urgent issue of workers’ rights. As RTE has reported, there is no state agency which has the statutory authority to do workplace inspections to ensure that appropriate physical distancing measures to protect against the spread of Covid-19 are being implemented. The body which you and the Minister for Finance told me to contact in relation to these issues, the HSE Environmental Unit, has said it has no power to do so.

I raised this issue in a question to your Department on 6 April and once again in the Dail on 16 April. The government appears to have taken no action in response to this being raised. Now, with the Keelings case, where the Covid-19 guidelines appear to be being ignored, the government cannot evade responsibility any longer. You need to take action urgently.

Keelings is placing its workers in danger by breaching the HSE Covid-19 guidelines. They have their workers sharing bedrooms, bathrooms and kitchens, making social distancing impossible. They are treating large groups of workers as a ‘family unit’ in order to try to evade the HSE rules. The reference in a leaked staff memo to a maximum gathering of 49 people within a “family unit” as well as the reference to “Hostel Groups” suggests that more than 49 workers were in one shared accommodation unit at a point of time.The memo also says that workers may be required to change “family unit”, meaning there is nothing to stop the virus spreading amongst workers.

390 migrant workers were reportedly brought in by Keelings earlier this year. This means they are accommodating 579 workers at present; and there’s about another 300 to come. So the statement from Keelings that these workers are being accommodated in six or eight person apartments lacks any credibility.

When I was contacted by a number of workers in relation to the lack of physical distancing in their workplaces, my office contacted the HSA. The HSA informed me and workers who contacted them that they do “not have the powers to enforce the public health guidelines.”

For that reason, I submitted the following question on 6 April: 

“The Health and Safety Authority has indicated that it will not conduct inspections of workplaces on foot of reports that the HSE Covid-19 Guidelines are not being implemented. To ask the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection to come forward with a Statutory Instrument to add these Guidelines to the responsibility of the HSA as provided for under S. 35 of the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act, 2005?”

In response to me and a number of other TDs, you wrote on Friday 17 April: “There are a number of avenues through which businesses may be inspected including through the HSE’s Environmental Health Officers who have public health and environmental functions.”

When I raised with Minister Donohoe the need for the HSA to be given additional powers in order to carry out workplace inspections in relation to the Covid-19 guidelines, he responded in the Dail on 16 April, that “I understand that is a matter for the environmental health section of the HSE.”

When I became aware of the danger Keelings was placing its workers in, I immediately wrote to the HSA and the HSE Environmental Unit asking that they investigate. However, the HSE has since responded on 23 April: “Further to your email of the 20/4/20 below, please be advised that the HSE Environmental Health Service has no statutory role in the inspection of employee living accommodation or workplace  health and safety.”

This clearly contradicts the advice both you and Minister Donohoe gave me. 

Your reply to me on April 17 also said: “…. I have asked my officials to explore how, in addition to the information already being provided by the HSA, the advisory and inspection functions of the Authority can contribute to ensuring that public health guidelines concerning COVID-19 are adhered to in workplaces…”

Have your officials responded to you regarding the inspection functions of the HSA being used to ensure the Covid-19 guidelines are being adhered to?

I did write to the HSA in relation to this issue, who responded on 22 April: “Just as your details are kept confidential, any dealings we have with duty holders and employers in relation to the matter you have raised must also remain confidential. Under health and safety legislation we cannot provide you with details of any specific actions taken or the outcome.”

So we are apparently to be denied any acknowledgement by the HSA that the Authority has acted on reports, from employees or others, that the health and safety of workers is being put at risk by an employer.

If it is the case that the HSA has no power to enforce the public health guidelines, it means that there is no body with statutory powers to do so. 

This is an urgent issue Minister. I am asking once again that the government acts to expand the powers of the HSA with a Statutory Instrument as provided for in the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005 to give them the power to investigate breaches of the HSE Covid-19 guidelines in workplaces.

Yours sincerely,

Paul Murphy TD

CC: Paschal Donohoe, Minister for Finance

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