We Know What the House’s Investigation on COVID Outbreaks in Meatpacking Plants Will Find
The investigation will find that corporations systemically prioritize their profits over worker safety, and the government stood by. We know what that this is what they will find because we have been working with affected communities and representing them in court to secure the safe workplaces they deserve.
Earlier this month, the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis launched an investigation into COVID outbreaks at meatpacking plants. We already know what they are going to find: dangerous workplace conditions leading to COVID spread and other injuries, racial disparities, and inadequate government response.
The subcommittee’s first finding is likely to be the most glaringly obvious one: COVID spread like wildfire among meatpacking workers because of existing abusive conditions. Fast line-speeds designed to increase corporate profits force meatpacking workers to stand shoulder to shoulder in crowded production lines. Workers cannot socially distance, facilitating the virus’ rapid spread. The plants where they work are poorly ventilated. Meat companies fail to offer workers sufficient personal protective equipment. Workers do not receive paid sick leave and are subject to a point attendance system that penalizes them for staying home when they get sick.
All of these abusive conditions existed before the pandemic, and they culminated in more than 57,000 reported COVID cases and 284 COVID-related deaths among meatpacking workers as of February 2021. The people who work hardest to put dinner on your table risk their lives every time they go to work to feed their own families. We know that workers deserve safe workplaces, so we sued Smithfield at the onset of the pandemic for failing to protect its workers.
If the House investigation does its due diligence, they will find that the same conditions that led to the rampant spread of COVID also harm meatpacking workers in many other ways. Fast line speeds force workers to repeat the same motion with sharp implements thousands of times every workday, leading to life-long repetitive stress injuries, stabbing wounds, and in extreme cases severed limbs. Amputations are so common that between 2015 and 2018, a worker lost a body part or went to the hospital for in-patient treatment about every other day. The plants’ poor ventilation systems give workers quasi-poisoning and other respiratory problems. The lack of proper medical attention and sick leave leads to permanent repetitive stress injuries when workers are forced to work through severe pain and injury.
Amputations are so common that between 2015 and 2018, a worker lost a body part or went to the hospital for in-patient treatment about every other day.
If the House investigation digs deeper, they will find point-blank racism. The meatpacking workforce is mostly Latinx, Black, and other people of color. The harms of the industry abuse fall mostly on their shoulders: last summer, 87% of cases in meatpacking plants were among racial and ethnic minorities.
The industry places plants in areas where there are fewer job opportunities and where much of the population belong to vulnerable groups who are often people of color, like immigrants, refugees, and formerly incarcerated people. The industry knows that these groups have less political capital and have more to risk by speaking out about abuse. Vulnerable workers get scared into silence through ag-gag laws, which penalize whistleblowing, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids, instigated by meat corporations on their own workers. Recognizing the inherent racism in the industry’s abuse of workers, we filed a civil rights complaint on behalf of the Food Chain Workers Alliance and other groups alleging that federal funding was being used for racially discriminatory practices. Even though the agency refused to act on our complaint, we brought attention to the racist abuse endured by workers and the grassroots groups standing up to it.
The House investigation’s logical next question may be: “What has the government done to halt industry abuse and protect meatpacking workers?” The answer: woefully little. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration’s (OSHA) failed to protect workers from COVID spread and other industry abuse. While 1,393 meatpacking and food process plants saw COVID cases, OSHA has only issued nine citations to meat processing facilities. The highest fine incurred was $15,615 — a slap on the wrist for companies that see yearly revenue in the billions. OSHA delayed inspecting a Pennsylvania Maid-Rite meatpacking plant, despite ongoing advocacy from the worker group Justice At Work. When OSHA finally conducted an investigation (for which it gave the company advance notice), the administration failed to issue a citation.
When the House finds these grim realities, we urge them to compel OSHA to do its job and issue an Emergency Temporary Standard to protect workers. In the meantime, we are suing the Secretary of Labor for OSHA’s failure to protect workers, seeking to compel the agency to enforce workplace protections in slaughterhouses.
Ultimately, the House investigation will only yield results if the investigators acknowledge this most fundamental truth: Everybody deserves to be safe at work. We know this, workers know this, and organizers know this. That’s why workers are organizing on the ground to build grassroots power, stand up to industry abuse, and secure safe workplaces, despite the scare tactics used by their employers.
At the Food Project, we represent these workers in courts to not only secure legal protections, but also to build power with them. Labor organizers can leverage our lawsuits to talk about the abuse workers endure and demand better workplace conditions. We know that the law does not operate in a vacuum: Our victories in the courts must operate in tandem with victories in the streets. Only then will we secure a food system that is safe for all.
Learn more about how we fight for worker justice, and join the Food Project Attorney Network to get involved.