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Report documents human rights abuses in U.S. meat plants
Blood, sweat and fear

By Eric Ruder and Alan Maass | February 4, 2005 | Page 12

WORKING CONDITIONS in U.S. meat and poultry plants are so dangerous that a new report compares the situation to The Jungle, Upton Sinclair's famous novel of a century ago.

Human Rights Watch concluded in its report issued last week that the hazardous conditions, low wages and illegal company efforts to stop union organizing drives constitute a violation of international human rights standards. "A century after Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle, workers in the meatpacking industry still face serious injuries," said Jamie Fellner, director of the U.S. section of Human Rights Watch. "Public agencies try to protect consumers from tainted meat, but do little to protect workers from unsafe conditions."

And when workers try to organize unions to fight for better conditions, industry executives use intimidation, threats of deportation and arrest to stop them. "U.S. law does little to protect workers who try to organize," said Lance Compa, the author of the report, titled "Blood, Sweat and Fear: Workers' Rights in U.S. Meat and Poultry Plants." "Enforcement efforts drag on for years, and even decisions that favor workers are usually too little, too late."

As a consequence, conditions normally associated with Third World sweatshops are standard in this core American industry.

"The line is so fast, there is no time to sharpen the knife," a worker at Smithfield Foods in Red Springs, N.C., told Human Rights Watch. "The knife gets dull, and you have to cut harder. That's when it really starts to hurt, and that's when you cut yourself."

The Human Rights Watch report singles out Tyson Foods, the world's largest meatpacker and poultry producer. At its Pasco, Wash., plant, the report found, Tyson "openly and aggressively interfered with workers' efforts to maintain their union"--most recently, refusing to accept defeat when workers voted against decertification in an April 2004 election.

Hal "Traven" Leyshon, a union representative in charge of community outreach for the union, Teamsters Local 556, says that the Tyson plant in Pasco is one of the most dangerous in the country.

"We know that the two biggest factors involved are line speed, which has accelerated tremendously, and second, understaffing," Leyshon told Socialist Worker. "This industry is driven by consolidation of huge corporations, which try to turn a greater and greater profit. They're limited in what they can do in terms of mechanization, so they focus on productivity--and to them, that means speeding up the line, which has led to the injury rates. This is all predictable. These are not accidents. This is company policy."

The Human Rights Watch report meticulously documents its similar conclusions. Numerous interviews describe the frantic pace of the production--with workers in cramped quarters slashing at the carcasses that rush at them. They make the same motions over and over again--as many as 30,000 times in a single shift.

The potential for injury--or worse--is high. As an industry expert cited in the report says, "Despite the hardhats, goggles, earplugs, stainless-steel mesh gloves, plastic forearm guards, chain-mail aprons and chaps, leather weightlifting belts, even baseball catcher's shin guards and hockey masks...the reported injury and illness rate for meatpacking was a staggering 20 per hundred full-time workers in 2001. This is two-and-a-half times greater than the average manufacturing rate of 8.1 and almost four times more than the overall rate for private industry of 7.4."

Meatpacking was once considered a good job, and a relatively safe one. But in the last two decades, a handful of corporations tightened their grip on the industry, moved their factories away from urban centers to rural areas, slashed wages, busted unions and hired immigrant workers to fill positions that few native-born workers were willing to accept.

When this trend was taking off at the beginning of the 1980s, meatpackers' wages were 17 percent higher than average factory wages. Five years later, wages were 15 percent lower, and by 2002, they were 24 percent lower.

To carry out this cut in wages combined with rapid speedup of the assembly line, employers threatened immigrant workers with mass firings and deportation if they resisted. In 2003, Smithfield workers spontaneously walked out of the factory in protest after some coworkers were fired. "One manager threatened to call immigration if we didn't go back right away," explained Roberto Muñoz Guerrero.

As long as it's cheaper to pay paltry government fines than provide safe conditions, corporations will continue putting workers' lives at risk.

Corporations put profits before safety

MEATPACKING may be the most dangerous job in the U.S., but workplaces in many other industries put employees at risk and cut their lives short.

Every year, 6 million workers are injured or become sick at their jobs. An average of 16 workers a day--or 6,000 a year--are killed on the job. Some 50,000 more die from occupational illnesses like lung disease or cancer. That's three times more than the 16,503 homicides in 2003.

But the politicians never talk about a "war on workplace injuries." In fact, during the 1990s, the years when Bill Clinton pledged to put 100,000 more police on the streets to fight the "war on crime," the number of inspectors at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) plunged.

George W. Bush and his administration have accelerated this trend. With its current staff, it would take OSHA about 120 years to inspect every workplace in the U.S.

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