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Sophie Watterson: Meat plant workers are not sacrificial lambs

Sophie Watterson: Meat plant workers are not sacrificial lambs

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Back in April, the Rural Community Workers Alliance filed a lawsuit on behalf of workers at the Smithfield meat processing plant in Milan, Missouri. Employees at the plant cited unsafe working conditions, like rapid line speeds and the company’s failure to provide personal protective equipment or space to maintain social distancing.

Workers in the Milan plant are rightfully concerned about the impacts that Smithfield’s lack of workplace safety measures may have had on their health and public safety. Food workers throughout the supply chain — from farms to slaughterhouses to grocery stores — have been deemed essential workers during the coronavirus pandemic, but corporations like Smithfield and Tyson Foods have treated them as entirely expendable.

Even though the pandemic continues to spread, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has granted line speed waivers to over a dozen meat processors. Faster line speeds require more workers on the line to manage the rate of meat production, thereby forcing workers to stand closer together and increasing the risk of coronavirus transmission and injury. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration has refused to mandate health and safety standards for employers. As a result, many meat processors do not enforce social distancing, provide personal protective equipment or sufficiently sanitize work spaces to limit employee exposure.

As a result, coronavirus cases have mounted across the country in meatpacking and processing plants, with over 24,000 individuals infected. Just a few weeks ago, Tyson Foods tested 1,142 employees at its poultry processing plant in Noel, Missouri. The result showed 291 individuals testing positive. Many of our food system workers are immigrants and people of color. These workers are essential, but that does not make them sacrificial. The disturbing reality is that this is not just a matter of industries putting profit over people, but of government collusion.

For example, on April 26, the chief executive of Tyson Foods took out an ad in The Washington Post claiming that plant closures due to the pandemic would dismantle the entire food system. Just two days later, President Donald Trump issued an executive order for meat processing facilities to remain open as “critical infrastructure” during the national emergency. The Trump administration fueled fears of a meat shortage this spring to justify meat processors staying open and even increasing line speeds, meanwhile the National Agricultural Statistics Service reported millions of pounds of frozen meat in government storage.

Corporations like Tyson and Smithfield control the entire supply chain of industrial meat production, from mass-producing livestock at concentrated animal feeding operations, known as CAFOs or “factory farms,” to slaughtering and processing. CAFOs notoriously recruit migrant workers on tenuous labor contracts, drive down property values, force small farmers out of business, and generate significant pollution concerns.

Nonetheless, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson suspended a number of regulatory requirements for CAFOs to accommodate transportation disruptions caused by the pandemic. Although our state began reopening in May, the suspension of these requirements may remain in effect until Dec. 30. Gov. Parson’s actions further demonstrate that the state government prioritizes industry over workers’ safety, environmental and public health.

This is a call for government accountability and better worker protection throughout the supply chain. We demand that Parson immediately reinstate regulatory requirements for CAFOs. We also demand that meat corporations like Tyson and Smithfield: 1) Provide paid leave during quarantine for all workers who test positive for COVID-19; 2) provide personal protective equipment to all workers at the beginning of every shift and ensure daily testing is available; 3) enforce physical distancing between workers and slow down line speeds regardless of whether a line speed waiver has been granted; and 4) publicly disclose all known coronavirus cases.

Sophie Watterson is an agricultural policy associate at the Missouri Coalition for the Environment.

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