U.S. meatpacking industry under fire

/ Source: Financial Times

The meatpacking industry in the U.S. came under attack yesterday for “systemic human rights violations.”

A report by Human Rights Watch accused beef, pork and poultry companies of fostering unsafe work conditions, blocking compensation for job-related injuries, spying on workers who try to form unions and exploiting immigrant labor.

The report described an environment of “constant fear and risk” among workers routinely faced with "extraordinarily high rates of injury" in slaughterhouses across the country.

The findings carry echoes of similar abuses exposed in the Chicago meatpacking industry by novelist Upton Sinclair in The Jungle almost a century ago, and revisited in the 2001 best-selling analysis of the U.S. food industry, “Fast Food Nation.”

The report, entitled “Blood, Sweat and Fear: Workers' Rights in U.S. Meat and Poultry Plants,” is the result of a two-year investigation into worker health and safety, rights to compensation for workplace injuries, freedom of association and the status of immigrant workers, many of them undocumented, who form a significant part of the employment base of U.S. meatpacking.

“Meat and poultry industry companies do not promise rose-garden workplaces, nor should it be expected of them. Turning an 800-pound animal or even a five-pound chicken into tenders for the supermarket checkout or fast-food restaurant counter is by its nature demanding physical labor in bloody, greasy surroundings,” Human Rights Watch said.

“But workers in this industry face more than hard work in tough settings. They contend with conditions, vulnerabilities, and abuses which violate human rights.”

Human Rights Watch routinely examines labor conditions at industries around the world.

But the American Meat Institute, which represents companies in the meatpacking industry that employs 515,000 people, said the report was “replete with falsehoods and baseless claims.”

The report involved interviews of workers and officials at Arkansas-based Tyson Foods, the largest meat and poultry company in the world and Virginia-based Smithfield Foods, the world's largest pork producer.

Researchers also interviewed workers at facilities of privately owned Nebraska Beef, where company officials refused to participate.

Human Rights Watch said the speed of lines carrying animals through the slaughtering process was so fast that workers cutting and eviscerating carcasses were experiencing injury rates more than twice the national average.

The U.S. meatpacking industry makes greater use of manual work than Europe, where much of this is automated. While line speeds are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the report said it assessed speeds solely on the basis of food safety considerations, not worker safety.

Meatpackers, driven by maximizing profit margins, had in recent years raised the volume of animals that went through a plant by increasing the speed at which they were processed.

“Slaughtering and carving up animals is inherently dangerous work but the dangers are accentuated by company operational choices,” the report said. “Meatpacking has become the most dangerous factory job in America.” Human Rights Watch called on the U.S. government to legislate to slow down line speeds to “reasonable levels” and set rules for workplace health and safety and for workers' compensation benefits.