With another surge of COVID-19 infections upon us, thousands of meatpacking workers’ lives are at risk once again because employers have failed to provide the workplace protections necessary to ensure health and safety. Their indifference to the plight of working people takes many forms, and falls hardest on the most vulnerable. A new CDC report demonstrated that crowded environments like those found at most meatpacking plants increase the risk of COVID transmission, and 83% of employees impacted are people of color, a drastic overrepresentation based on population alone.
As food and labor advocates, we hear about the tragic stories behind these statistics on a regular basis. For example, JBS, the world’s largest meatpacking corporation, has refused to compensate the families of employees who died after contracting COVID at its facility in Colorado. And every time there is a similar story, the same handful of corporations roll out the same playbook to avoid taking responsibility. Rather than slowing down production speeds or allowing for social distancing (basic measures to keep employees safe), these corporations deny allegations of poor worker treatment and seek to discredit critics or punish outspoken workers. When denial isn’t possible, they use their resources to deflect attention, distract the public, and even push for policies that favor corporations over the lives of working families.
For instance, Smithfield Foods took out a full-page ad in The New York Times, which costs hundreds of thousands of dollars, to baselessly deny well-documented allegations of harmful working conditions. In fact, our information comes directly from Smithfield employees, who are courageously sharing the truth of their experience despite the risk of retaliation from the corporation. The ad thanks the “hundreds of thousands of men and women sacrificing daily.” But why should workers have to sacrifice? They wouldn’t need to if Smithfield took precautions to create a safer work environment. And when faced with criticism, Tyson Foods sought to further deflect attention by announcing band-aid measures like increased virus testing and even patting themself on the back with an extensive report about their business success during COVID, while doing nothing to actually improve the crowded conditions that allow the virus to spread in the first place.
In the absence of such standards, over 48,000 people working in meatpacking facilities have tested positive for COVID-19 as of October. Despite these appalling rates of illness, it took more than six months for meatpacking corporations to receive the Department of Labor’s first COVID-19-related citations for failing to protect workers from the spread of coronavirus. The two facilities, operated by multinational corporations Smithfield and JBS, were fined a total of only $30,000 despite 12 deaths and nearly 1,500 cases of COVID-19 among working people at their facilities. These measly fines weren’t even a slap on the wrist for JBS and Smithfield, which rake in billions in revenue each year.
To resist calls for any new regulations, meatpacking corporations often cite baseless warnings about food shortages that are intended to stoke fear, and imply that any new mandated worker protections would somehow jeopardize the food supply. But that logic just doesn’t hold up to even a cursory level of scrutiny. For instance, meatpackers exported more pork to China in April, at the height of the pandemic, than in any other month in the last two decades. It’s these same corporations that have weakened the food supply chain by buying up smaller operations and monopolizing control over meat production. By squeezing out smaller operators, corporations have forced consumers to rely on their own, consolidated meatpacking facilities, which are more vulnerable to disease spread, whether that’s COVID-19 or salmonella.
Some of the few remaining independent meatpackers offer a better deal for consumers and workers alike. For instance, at Arend’s Farms Meat & Butcher Shop, an independent processing facility in Illinois, co-owner Randy Arend has invested in extra protective equipment and restructured the facility to allow people working at their factory to remain physically distanced. He’s helped his employees get tested and minimized the occasions that they need to interact with outside customers. This local facility owner has created a safer workplace than corporations with vast budgets and teams of experts at their disposal.
Instead, meatpacking corporations have spent their resources and time consolidating control of the entire food system, and now enjoy almost unimaginable influence through their close connections with leaders. For instance, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue praised meatpackers' responses to the pandemic recently, despite acknowledging that he personally had received numerous letters from employees at meatpacking facilities raising the alarm about harmful conditions. It’s clear that these corporations have only used their outsized influence to avoid any accountability; they’ve failed to use those resources to do the right thing.
It’s time for our elected officials to pass enforceable workplace protections like those in the HEROES Act to make sure workers are able to stay safe, maintain social distance, and access paid sick leave.
During the current crisis and beyond, our nation’s food workers deserve healthy, safe and dignified working conditions. All of our communities’ health and safety depends on it.