A recent invoice written by Sen. Cory Booker (DN.J.) and Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Cal.) seeks to close the huge power gap in the meat industry and make processing plants safer for workers . The bill has won the support of worker advocates and organizers, who see it as a good first step towards improving industry conditions for meat processing workers.
“The U.S. Meat Packer Worker Protection Act would provide much-needed protections for meatpacking workers… It is clear that our food system is not safe for most agricultural and food chain workers, including meatpacking workers who, in because of the power and influence of large multinational corporations, have been forced to risk their lives, crammed into meat-packing plants that have become hotbeds of COVID-19 outbreaks,” proponents of the legislation said in A press release.
The meat industry is highly consolidated. Meat conglomerates have used their market share power to exploit workers, raise consumer prices, underpay farmers and generate huge profits. Pandemic-era net income jumped 500% while share buybacks and dividends topped $4 billion. Processors prioritized productivity and profitability over worker safety. Smithfield fueled fears of a meat shortage as exports to China increased. And the Tyson CEO argued in an op-ed that meat production was essential because healthcare and meat factories had to stay open no matter what. The Trump administration then increased line speeds in crowded conditions, with workers making up to 24,000 knife cuts and lifting 15 tons of meat a day.
A Special Subcommittee of the United States House of October 2021 report found that at least 59,000 workers at the top 5 meatpackers, including JBS, Tyson, Smithfield and Cargill, have been sickened by Covid-19 and at least 269 have died. Outbreaks in factories have caused huge viral clusters in these communities, with more than 44% of workers testing positive for the virus and countless friends, family and community members sick or killed. by the spread. With more than 500,000 meat processing employees, researchers estimate an additional 5,000 Covid-19 deaths and 250,000 cases could be attributed to the rapid spread in meat facilities.
the U.S. Meat Packer Worker Protection Act is the first step in addressing these injustices. Some of the bills key provisions include:
prevent the US Department of Agriculture from issuing line speed waivers unless meat and poultry plants show that an increase in line speeds will not have a negative impact on worker safety
strengthen health and safety standards and communication
Extensive plant safety inspections, with particular attention to line speeds, jobsite temperatures and toilet breaks
strengthen protections against retaliation for security reasons
new pandemic safety reports to require factories to report the number of employees who fall ill
Reinstate country-of-origin labeling so consumers know their food comes from well-regulated domestic facilities
The bill also directs OSHA to establish an industry-wide protocol to protect workers from repetitive stress injuries, with worker participation in the process, as well as a mandate to make respect the safety conditions in the factories. Meatpacking plants consistently report the highest rates of injuries, including amputations, and more than a third of meatpacking workers suffer from carpal tunnel syndrome as well as other debilitating conditions. The bill would also prevent employers from preventing bathroom breaks; 80% of workers cannot use the toilet when needed.
The meatpacking workforce is largely made up of immigrants and people of color. Over 42% of meat plant workers are Latino/Hispanic. The average wage for meat packers is $19 an hour, and several thousand people are paid far less than a living wage. About 1 in 5 meat plant workers are eligible for SNAP, double the rate 20 years ago. Unionization rates in meatpacking have fallen from 90% among mostly white workers in the 1950s to 18% in 2020. And meat sales continue to increase retail, reaching $82 billion in 2021, or about 7% of overall grocery and mass market sales. Grocers depend on meat sales to increase customer transaction volumes (aka “basket size”) and have yet to see significant competition from meat from plant-based analogues, which have stabilized at $1.4 billion in 2021. Regulating the meat industry in the short term is a much higher priority for worker advocates and organizers than pinning hopes on tech-savvy replacements.
According to the leaders of HEAL Food Alliance and Food Chain Workers Alliance, meat and poultry processing workers have been organizing for safe working conditions for many years and were on the front lines demanding COVID protections.
“Weak existing laws failed to protect workers in the meat processing industry before and during the COVID pandemic. We now have an opportunity to improve these working conditions and prevent the deterioration of workers’ health by adopting and implementing new laws and policies. I urge Congress to listen to the needs of workers and move quickly to pass this bill,” said Axel Fuentes, executive director of the Rural Community Workers Alliance, which organizes meat processing workers in Missouri and in the south..
Suzanne Adely, co-director, of Food Chain Workers Alliance said: “Meat processing workers have been organizing for years for safe working conditions and to be heard in their workplaces, and the COVID pandemic has shown us how concerned these workers are. risk. While much more needs to be done to protect workers and support worker organizing in meat processing plants, we believe the provisions of this bill are a critical step.
And Magaly Licolli, executive director of the Venceremos workers’ center in Rogers, Arkansas, gave his opinion on the contents of the bill. Licolli recently said The Payment Podcast, “These companies treat workers like expendables. They see no value in these workers. Workers must be part of the solutions, be part of the creation of those solutions and be part of the follow-up to those solutions.