IIn the spring of 2018, Alina Serbenco’s husband, Vasile, sat in a fast food establishment in Dublin and plugged his mobile phone into an outlet to recharge it. It had been only a few months since she moved from Romania to work at a car wash, but she was paid less than half the minimum wage and she couldn’t send money home to Alina and her two children. Homeless and living in a car, Vasile was in dire need of a new job.
While scrolling through Facebook, he saw a job advertisement at a meat factory. It was published by the Irish employment agency AA Euro, a specialist recruitment consultancy. working with companies in the agriculture, food processing, construction and mining industries, it has offices throughout the EU, including Romania, Poland and the Netherlands. The job offer was for up to 70 hours of work a week for just over minimum wage and a room in a house for about 60 euros (£ 51.50) a week. Vasile decided to run.
He secured the job at the meat factory and told Alina that she too could get a position there. Alina and her children moved in in a few months, hoping for a new life together in Ireland. But their situation quickly got complicated.
Alina and Vasile’s agency contracts were in Romanian and Polish. What they say they didn’t realize, Alina says, is that by signing the contract they became self-employed contractors in Poland and would be paid through Polish income through a Polish subsidiary of the agency. Neither of them had visited Poland. As a result, they were unable to pay taxes or social security contributions in Ireland and were not entitled to social assistance, sick pay, child benefits or medical cards. As EU citizens, they suddenly felt like undocumented immigrants. “We were invisible,” says Alina. “We did not exist in Ireland.”
Alina says her job at the factory was to pack up to 20,000 chicken breasts a day, intended for sale in supermarkets and the foodservice sector in Ireland and Northern Ireland. “I sat all day weighing the chickens and then I put a plastic seal on them. I had to stay in the same place for five hours, head down. It is a cold place and very often I got sick with kidney infections, ”he says. “If I had my period, I would have to argue with the supervisor to go to the bathroom.”
The directors of AA Euro say that the company had no control over the conditions of the factory and that “no worker worked on average more than 42 hours a week on average in the factory.” They say AA Euro Recruitment Poland Sp. Zoo, a Polish company, acquired and hired workers to work in Europebut it had stopped providing workers to Ireland in 2019. “These workers were being paid more than if they were hired locally,” they say. “The option of an employment contract was outside AA Euro Recruitment Poland Sp. The zoo authority could only be sanctioned by the factory.”
‘We don’t depend on agency workers’
Approximately 15,000 people works in large-scale slaughterhouses and processing plants in Ireland, and an estimated 70% are migrants. They serve Ireland’s export-driven meat and livestock industry at € 4 billion, with almost half of all beef and 70% of poultry. ending up in the UK.
The exact extent of outsourced labor in the industry is unclear. The Irish labor inspectorate, the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC), says it has no data regarding the number of meat workers employed by agencies and subcontractors. According to the representative group of meat processors, Meat Industry Ireland (MII), the business model of meat processors is based on direct full-time employment, with agencies and subcontractors providing “less than 2%” of the force work of its members. “Claims of high dependency on agency or subcontractor workers are inaccurate,” says Cormac Healy, the group’s senior director.
But Greg Ennis from Siptu Union, which represents 6,500 meat workers, says that a fifth of the workers are hired through agencies and subcontractors.
The Irish labor inspectorate, which has 53 inspectors, told The Guardian that the meat processing sector is considered a “risk sector” due to non-compliance with labor laws. Between 2015 and 2020, nearly half of all inspections at meat plants detected labor law violations related to wages, working time, improper record keeping, and employment permits. The inspection is also responsible for regulating employment agencies; In the last two years, 1.3% of all agencies were inspected and of these, 40% did not comply with the wage law.
It comes a year after a parliamentary committee examined the state’s response to Covid-19. Since the start of the pandemic, the Irish Department of Health says there have been 126 outbreaks in meat factories and just over 3,600. workers have been infected. Union officials told the committee that they believed there had been “chronic mistreatment of workers”, an accusation that the MII flatly denied, which it said was “unfounded”. Unions have demanded better enforcement and regulation of employment through agencies.
The committee recommended the establishment of an investigation to examine the operations of the meat industry and the use of agents for the recruitment of workers. But no action has been taken. The committee’s chairman, politician Michael McNamara, says the government’s inaction is “a disappointment.”
The Guardian has spoken to other workers who say they were assigned by AA Euro as self-employed contractors in Poland. “I don’t know how they opened this company for me because I’ve never been to Poland,” says a worker, who earned 10.10 euros (8.67 pounds sterling) an hour. “They told me ‘if you want to work with us, sign here. If not, there is the door, you can go home. ‘
‘People have no security at work’
“This is how you have full control over your workforce,” says Nora Labo, who worked for the Independent Workers Union (IWU) until earlier this year. “It is a way of avoiding all the checks and balances imposed by Irish labor law.” Labo says that by declaring workers self-employed, agencies and meat factories can dispose of them “as they please.” “People have no job security; they do not accumulate seniority at work. They do not have leases for their accommodation and evictions occur. It is very convenient that they are declared in Poland because there is no way to trace them. “
Another worker, Florin Ghituca, says that after starting work at the factory in 2019, he realized that his contract meant that the services were contracted from a Polish company at AA Euro. “After a few months, my friend told me that they paid us through a Polish subsidiary. I said, ‘come on, that’s ridiculous, this is not possible.’ I did not believe it. He had an Irish bank account. How could my salary be paid in Poland? I discovered him speaking in the factory, ”he says. “I knew that this deprived me of my rights.”
Alina says the agency deducted the rent per person for accommodation in a three-bedroom house shared with a worker. “It was almost my entire salary, I had 70 euros (60 pounds sterling) left the first month. I was crying in the locker room. ”She says her documentation also shows that the agency deducted € 30 (£ 27.75) a month for bank transfers and around € 250 (£ 214.50) for Polish taxes.
Because all of her taxes and social security payments were paid through Poland, Alina was unable to claim financial support from the Irish authorities for her children, such as an allowance for her son’s school bus, and was having difficulty paying for food. . “I was borrowing money for milk. My son’s teacher gave me a € 200 voucher for the supermarket, she knew we had nothing to eat ”.
‘The only thing they care about is the meat’
Alina says she repeatedly applied to the agency for an Irish employment contract, but was not received. “It was like a game of ping pong: the agency sent me to the factory bosses, who sent me to speak with the agency.” A few months later, he decided to quit. She says the factory promised her an Irish contract, “but the day before it expired, they said she wouldn’t get it for a few months. I took off my work clothes and left work right there.
Alina saved her correspondence, messages and documentation and filed a complaint with the WRC. He also sought the advice of the IWU in Cork, which filed 400 complaints on behalf of 100 agency meat workers from Romania, Moldova, Slovakia and Poland, who alleged discrimination based on their rights.
Commenting on these allegations, the directors of AA Euro say that the WRC cases were “wrong, annoying and without foundation.” They say that the company offers accommodation to new workers who cannot find a place to live at the beginning of their employment. “They are given every opportunity to move into their own accommodation as we operate on a cost recovery basis only and it is not the mainstay of our business,” they say. “There have been no evictions of workers.”
Ghituca took to social media to make her voice heard. He posted on the social media promotional page of a retailer selling poultry products from the factory and expressed his feelings about life as an agency meat worker. When the agency learned of the posts, it conducted an investigation and Ghituca was suspended for six weeks. He was then summarily fired by the agency for gross misconduct.
Ghituca is back in Romania, while Alina and Vasile work together as cleaners in Cork. Alina says that she will never work in a meat factory again. “There are other sectors where you can get better pay for work with better conditions, where you are more respected, where they allow you to go to the bathroom, you have a day off if you need it and you have sick pay,” he said. He says. “The only thing they care about is the meat. They don’t care about people. “
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George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism