Poultry and meatpacking workers testify about poor working conditions in the industry, hoping to stop major regulatory changes that could negatively impact worker safety and public health.
WASHINGTON — Workers from the U.S. poultry and meatpacking industries on Tuesday testified before an international rights body on a series of long-standing labor and regulatory concerns.
The hearing before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) was the first of its kind. And though many of the complaints have been voiced for years, the testimony came as the U.S. government moves into the final stages of approving major regulatory changes that workers and advocacy groups worry could endanger both worker safety and public health.
The petitioners point to high processing speeds as leading directly to significant rates of worker injury, particularly repetitive stress injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome, a painful inflammation of tendons and nerves in the wrists. Workers say such problems make it impossible for them to continue to do physical labor. Over the past two years, watchdog and government studies have repeatedly found rates of carpal tunnel syndrome in various parts of the poultry and meatpacking industry to be anywhere from 40 and 80 percent, or even higher.
On Tuesday, multiple workers told the IACHR commissioners that after experiencing work-related illness or injury, they were typically offered no compensation, were discouraged from formally reporting the problem and were eventually fired or let go. The commission is a Washington-based arm of the 35-member Organization of American States, and is one of the world’s first multilateral rights bodies.
“I’ve had surgeries on both hands and two on my back and many hours of therapy, but the pain doesn’t stop. My hands lost their strength and grip. After my back surgery, I lost my strength in my legs. Imagine being disabled at the age of 41,” Juan Martinez, who worked in Nebraska meatpacking plants for eight years, told the commissioners.
“My doctor set work restrictions that prohibited me from using a knife or hook. Once my company learned of my restrictions, they quickly laid me off. In my experience, when you’re injured the company looks for any excuse to fire you … I’ve come to learn that when you’re injured on the job at the packing plants, it becomes nearly impossible to find a job.”
Others noted that their injuries were related not just to repetitious movement but also to the significant speeds at which workers are required to perform their functions.
“I packed hams for eight hours a day, 40 to 50 hams every minute. The processing line moves tremendously fast and doesn’t stop,” Teresa Martinez, another former Nebraska meatpacker, stated.
“After just three years I had to have surgery. When I had pain and warning signs at the beginning and reported it, [the company] only gave me pills and ice to stop the pain … What I wanted when I worked at the plant was to be treated like a human being and not like some replaceable machine.”
The poultry and meatpacking industries in the United States are significant job-creators, particularly in rural areas. The sector employs more than half a million people, including a disproportionate number of black and Latino workers, particularly women. Many of these workers have only recently arrived in the U.S., a situation that advocacy groups say has resulted in inordinate reports of abuse.
“A lot of these workers are undocumented immigrants, and from our work we’ve seen that a lot of them don’t know their rights or how to respond,” Omaid Zabih, one of the petitioners before the IACHR and a staff attorney for the Nebraska Appleseed Center for Law in the Public Interest, a watchdog group, told MintPress News following his testimony on Tuesday. “This likely exacerbates a host of other problems, including fear of reporting injuries, fear of retaliation, sexual harassment, even a lack of bathroom breaks.”
Zabih said Tuesday’s hearing was convened in order to tell the commission that work conditions in the industry are “unacceptable and inhumane.” His office and others involved in petitioning the IACHR are hoping the commissioners will push the federal government to institute a new, slower work speed standard across the country.
“We’d also like the commissioners to monitor the situation in the plants and, if possible, to do some more fact-finding — get out and talk to more workers and get a better sense of what people face,” Zabih said.
“While the government did pass new meatpacking and poultry guidelines during the 1990s, the problem is that they’re just that — they’re guidelines, mere suggestions to the plants, and they’re not enforceable. They do have laws for those who want to report abuse, but even here, the window to do so is just 30 days.”
Unionization is relatively low throughout the meatpacking industry, with just 30 percent of poultry workers having formally organized.
On Tuesday, representatives from the U.S. Departments of Labor and Agriculture cautioned against drawing any direct connection between processing line speeds and worker injury.
“The petitioners ask about line speeds, but musculoskeletal disorders are caused by a number of factors … [including] cold temperatures and ergonomic problems,” Andrew Levinson, an official with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, told the IACHR. “Thus, any effort to prevent these disorders must take all of these factors into account, not just line speed.”
Levinson acknowledged that the meatpacking sector is among the 25 most dangerous industries in the country, but warned that OSHA is a “small agency,” with just 2,200 inspectors to cover upwards of 8 million worksites. “It would take OSHA over 100 years to inspect every workplace under its jurisdiction,” he said, noting that “employers have the obligation to provide a workplace free from recognized hazards.”
Although industry representatives did not offer testimony on Tuesday, companies have pushed against criticism of the sector’s labor practices for years.
“Our employees are our best asset and we treat their health and safety as a top priority,” Thomas Super, a spokesperson for the National Chicken Council, a prominent lobby group, told MintPress.
Super pointed to Department of Labor findings that show significant improvements in the poultry industry’s rates of worker injury and illness over the past two decades. During the early 1990s, these numbers were almost twice as high for the industry as for as all manufacturing during the early 1990s, but by 2012, they were almost equal.
“Perhaps more than any other industry,” an industry briefing states, “the poultry industry over the last several decades has focused its energies on the prevention of workplace injuries and illnesses, especially musculoskeletal disorders like carpal tunnel syndrome, by recognizing the value of implementing ergonomics principles.”
Going 25 percent faster
Labor rights advocates don’t dispute that a spectrum of issues contributes to workplace injury and illness in the meatpacking industry. Still, workers themselves appear to focus primarily on a single factor: the speed of the processing line. Not only is this a factor that the industry has been pushing to increase for years, but it currently looks as though it will soon be successful.
In 2009, Nebraska Appleseed surveyed workers throughout the state’s large meatpacking sector. Researchers found that workers’ most significant concern was the speed at which their work was required to take place, in terms of both the speed of the processing line and the number of workers hired to do the work. Nearly three-quarters of workers stated that the line speed had increased over the previous year, while 94 percent said the number of workers had dropped.
Now poultry workers and advocacy groups across the country are focused on a proposal from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that would raise top processing speeds by nearly 25 percent, from 140 to 175 birds per minute. The proposed rule would also see the number of federal inspectors assigned to processing plants cut by 75 percent, leaving company employees to pick up the slack.
In return, the government would require that processors bathe each chicken or turkey carcass in chlorine and other chemicals aimed at killing any pathogens that remain on the bird.
Government regulators are “backing corporations that place profit over people,” Felicia Tripp, with the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, told MintPress. “There should clearly be a ruling in place to make quality of life better, not stabilizing that which is already inhumane.”
The new rule, which was introduced in April 2012, could be finalized as soon as April or May. Earlier this month, over 100 groups and businesses delivered a letter, along with nearly 220,000 petitions, to President Barack Obama, asking that the proposal be withdrawn.
“The proposed rule puts company employees in the role of protecting consumer safety, but does not require them to receive any training before performing duties normally performed by government inspectors,” the letter states.
“And lack of training is not the only impact this rule will have on workers. Increased [production] speeds will put worker safety in jeopardy … This proposed rule would let the fox guard the hen house, at the expense of worker safety and consumer protection.”
The National Chicken Council has published responses to criticisms of the proposed regulatory changes on its website. For the moment, the Obama administration appears set on pushing through the new rule, characterizing it as a cost-cutting measure.
Under the president’s new budget proposal, released earlier this month, the USDA’s inspections funding would be cut by nearly $10 million, despite the fact that no rule has yet been finalized. Previously, the federal savings had been estimated even higher, at some $90 million over three years.