In spring 2018, Alina Serbenco’s husband, Vasile, sat in a fast-food outlet in Dublin and plugged his mobile phone into a socket to recharge. It had been only a few months since he had moved from Romania to take up a job in a car wash, but he was being paid less than half the minimum wage and could not send money home to Alina and their two children. Homeless and living in a car, Vasile urgently needed a new job.
As he scrolled through Facebook, he spotted an advert for a job in a meat factory. It was posted by Irish employment agency AA Euro, a specialist recruitment consultancy working with companies in the agricultural, food processing, construction and mining industries, which has offices across the EU, including in Romania, Poland and the Netherlands. The job offer was up to 70 hours a week of work for just over the minimum wage and a room in a house for about €60 (£51.50) a week. Vasile decided to apply.
He secured the job at the meat factory and told Alina she could also get a position there. Alina and their children moved over within months, looking forward to a new life together in Ireland. But their situation quickly became complicated.
Alina and Vasile’s agency contracts were in Romanian and Polish. What they say they did not realise, says Alina, was that by signing the contract they became self-employed contractors in Poland and would be paid through the Polish revenue via a Polish subsidiary of the agency. Neither of them had even visited Poland. As a result, they could not pay tax or social insurance contributions in Ireland and had no right to social welfare, illness payments, child benefit or medical cards. As EU citizens, they suddenly felt like undocumented migrants. “We were invisible,” says Alina. “We were not existing in Ireland.”
Alina says her work in the factory involved packing up to 20,000 chicken breasts a day, destined for sale in supermarkets and the food service sector across Ireland and Northern Ireland. “I sat all day weighing the chicken, then put a plastic seal on them. I had to stay in the same place for five hours, head down. It’s a cold place, and I was very often sick with kidney infections,” she says. “If I was on my period, I would have to argue with the supervisor to go to the toilet.”
The directors of AA Euro say the company had no control over factory conditions and “no worker worked on average more than 42 hours a week on an average basis in the factory”. They say AA Euro Recruitment Poland Sp. Zoo, a Polish company, sourced and contracted workers to work in Europe, but had ceased providing workers to Ireland in 2019. “These workers were being paid more than if they were contracted locally,” they say. “The option of an employment contract was outside AA Euro Recruitment Poland Sp. Zoo’s authority, it could only be sanctioned by the factory.”
‘We’re not dependent on agency workers’
Approximately 15,000 people work in Ireland’s large-scale abattoirs and processing plants, and an estimated 70% are migrants. They’re servicing Ireland’s €4bn export-driven meat and livestock industry, with nearly half of all beef, and 70% of poultry, ending up in the UK.
The exact extent of outsourced labour in the industry is unclear. The Irish labour inspectorate, the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC), says it has no data in relation to the number of meat workers hired by agencies and sub-contractors. According to the meat processors representative group, Meat Industry Ireland (MII), the business model of the meat processors is based on full-time direct employment, and agencies and subcontractors provide “less than 2%” of its members’ workforce. “Claims of a high dependency on agency workers or sub-contractors are inaccurate,” says Cormac Healy, the group’s senior director.
But Greg Ennis of the Siptu union, which represents 6,500 meat workers, says a fifth of workers are hired via agencies and subcontractors.
The Irish labour inspectorate, which has 53 inspectors, told the Guardian that the meat processing sector is considered a “risk sector” due to non-compliance with employment law. Between 2015 and 2020, nearly half of all inspections in meat plants detected breaches of labour law relating to pay, working time, inadequate record-keeping and employment permit issues. The inspectorate is also responsible for regulating employment agencies; in the past two years, 1.3% of all agencies were inspected and of these, 40% were non-compliant with wage law.
It comes a year after a parliamentary committee examined the state’s response to Covid-19. Since the start of the pandemic, Ireland’s 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 a “chronic mistreatment of workers” – an allegation strongly denied by MII, which said it was “baseless”. Unions have demanded better enforcement and regulation of agency employment.
The committee recommended the establishment of an inquiry to examine the operations of the meat industry and the use of agents to procure workers. But no action has been taken. The committee’s chair, politician Michael McNamara, says the government’s failure to act is “a disappointment”.
The Guardian has spoken to other workers who say AA Euro assigned them as self-employed contractors in Poland. “I don’t know how they opened this company for me because I have never been to Poland,” says a worker, who earned €10.10 (£8.67) 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 total control over your workforce,” says Nora Labo, who worked for the Independent Workers Union (IWU) until earlier this year. “It is a way to avoid all the checks and balances imposed by Irish labour law.” Labo says that by declaring workers as self-employed, agencies and meat factories can dispose of them “as they please”. “People have no security at work; they don’t accumulate any length of service in the job. They have no tenancy agreements for their accommodation, and evictions happen. It’s very convenient that they’re declared in Poland because there’s no way to track them.”
Another worker, Florin Ghituca, says after he started working at the factory in 2019, he realised his contract meant services were contracted from a Polish company to AA Euro. “After a few months, my friend told me that we were paid through a Polish subsidiary. I said, ‘come on, that is ridiculous, this is not possible’. I did not believe it. I had an Irish bank account. How could my wages be paid in Poland? I found it out through talk on the factory floor,” he says. “I knew this deprived me of my rights.”
Alina says the agency deducted rent per person for accommodation in a three-bedroom house shared with a male worker. “It was nearly all of my wages – I had €70 (£60) left the first month. I was crying in the changing rooms.” She says her paperwork also shows the agency deducted €30 (£27.75) a month for bank transfers and about €250 (£214.50) for Polish tax.
Because all her taxes and social security payments were paid through Poland, Alina could not claim financial support from Irish authorities for her children, such as a subsidy for her son’s school bus, and she struggled to afford 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 asked the agency for an Irish employment contract, but it wasn’t forthcoming. “It was like a game of ping pong – the agency sent me to the factory bosses, who sent me to talk to the agency.” A few months later, she decided to quit. She says the factory promised her an Irish contract, “but the day before it was due, they said I wouldn’t get it for another few months. I took off my work clothes and left the job, there and then.”
Alina kept her correspondence, messages and paperwork and made a complaint to the WRC. She also sought advice from the IWU in Cork, which filed 400 complaints on behalf of 100 agency meat workers from Romania, Moldova, Slovakia and Poland, who alleged discrimination over their rights.
Commenting on these allegations, the directors of AA Euro say the WRC cases were “incorrect, vexatious and without grounds”. They say the company provides accommodation for new workers unable to find places to live at the start of their employment. “They are given every opportunity to move to their own accommodation as we operate on a cost-only recovery basis and it is not the mainstay of our business,” they say. “No evictions of workers have taken place.”
Ghituca turned to social media to make his 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 found out about the posts, it conducted an investigation, and Ghituca was suspended for six weeks. He was then summarily dismissed by the agency for gross misconduct.
Ghituca is back in Romania, while Alina and Vasile work together as cleaners in Cork. Alina says 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 you are allowed to go to the toilet, you have a day off if you need, and you have sick pay,” she says. “The only thing they care about is the meat. They don’t care about the people.”
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