The pandemic exposed the human cost of the meatpacking industry’s power: ‘It’s enormously frightening’

The message from companies and regulators has been clear: Americans need meat, and workers need to risk their lives to provide it

Early in the pandemic, Covid outbreaks were rampant in America’s meatpacking plants – the factories that kill, cut and package animals.

But the chairman of one of biggest meat companies in the US, Tyson, argued that these factories should stay open to feed Americans.

“It is as essential as healthcare,” John Tyson wrote in several newspaper ads. Days later Donald Trump issued an executive order to keep meat plants running.

The following month, 49 meatpacking workers died of Covid.

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The message was clear: Americans needed meat, and workers needed to risk their lives to provide it. And Osha – the labor department agency that is supposed to protect workers – could seemingly do little to protect them.

In a factory in Greeley, Colorado, owned by meat conglomerate JBS, at least six workers died early in the pandemic. Osha is supposed to investigate every workplace fatality reported to them, but it took months for them to send an investigator.

When Osha finally showed up to investigate, it found JBS failed to make its workplace free of “hazards that were causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm”. The penalty: a proposed fine of $13,494.

That’s about how much revenue JBS earns in 60 seconds.

Meatpacking workers tried to tell Osha about their concerns. In the first weeks of the pandemic, dozens of them officially complained to Osha. They said management was forcing people with Covid symptoms to continue coming to work; that social distancing guidelines weren’t enforced; and that they had inadequate protective equipment.

Meanwhile, meatpacking executives privately believed that outbreaks were unavoidable, documents revealed by ProPublica have shown. “Social distancing is a nicety that makes sense only for people with laptops,” wrote Smithfield CEO Kenneth Sullivan. A Tyson official blamed outbreaks on the workers’ crowded living and commuting arrangements: “This is a culture issue.”

In a way the companies were right: it was unavoidable – partly because, for decades, the meatpacking industry had worked to take bargaining power away from workers to create an industry that has been criticized for treating them as disposable parts of an assembly line.

“What Covid did was just really shed light on what workers dealt with anyway,” said Kim Cordova, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7, which represents workers at the Greeley JBS plant. “Osha just failed. They did absolutely nothing to help workers during the worst pandemic we’ve seen in our lifetime.”

Representative Jim Clyburn, who heads a congressional investigation into the coronavirus, wrote, “[Osha] failed to adequately carry out its responsibility for enforcing worker safety laws at meatpacking plants across the country, resulting in preventable infections and deaths.”

In a statement, Osha said it was committed to worker safety and added that, as President Joe Biden had ordered, it was “continuing to review” its response to Covid in order to implement any changes that could better protect workers. It said Clyburn’s letter and requests referred to actions under the Trump administration.

The failures weren’t limited to factories. The 500,000 people working in meatpacking inevitably came in contact with people in their community and spread the virus. Researchers found that by July 2020, areas nearby meatpacking plants had far more Covid cases and deaths than expected: about 5,000 additional Covid deaths and about a quarter million additional cases.

Put another way, meatpacking plants were connected to 6% to 8% of all early-pandemic Covid cases and 3% to 4% of all early-pandemic Covid deaths. “This needs to go down in the history books as one of the biggest failures to the working man or woman that this country’s ever seen,” Cordova said.

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The message from companies and regulators has been clear: Americans need meat, and workers need to risk their lives to provide it Early in the pandemic, Covid outbreaks were rampant in America’s meatpacking plants – the factories that kill, cut and package animals. But the chairman of one of biggest meat companies in the US,…

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