Human Rights Advocacy Group Issues Scathing Report on Workplace Conditions in Meat and Poultry Industry

Jan. 26, 2005
Employers in the U.S. meat and poultry industry subject their workers to unnecessary hazards, suppress workers' rights to unionize, obfuscate employees' attempts to obtain workers' compensation and exploit their immigrant workers, according to a report issued Tuesday by a human rights advocacy group.

The 175-page report, entitled "Blood, Sweat and Fear: Workers' Rights in U.S. Meat and Poultry Plants," says it bases its conclusions on research, interviews and visits to the operations of Omaha-based Nebraska Beef Ltd., Smithfield, Va.-based Smithfield Foods Inc. and Springdale, Ark.-based Tyson Foods Inc. The report was issued by Human Rights Watch, which is largest human rights organization based in the United States, according to its Web site.

"In meat and poultry plants across the United States, Human Rights Watch found that many workers face a real danger of losing a limb, or even their lives, in unsafe work conditions," the organization said in a news release yesterday. "It also found that companies frequently deny workers' compensation to employees injured on the job, intimidate and fire workers who try to organize and exploit workers' immigrant status in order to keep them quiet about abuses."

Injuries are 'predictable and preventable'

Research for the report was conducted in 2003 and 2004, according to Human Rights Watch, and also includes information taken from one of its previous publications, "Unfair Advantage," which the organization says "documented widespread violations of workers organizing rights."

Human Rights Watch says the report issued Tuesday uncovers basic human rights violations in the areas of workplace health and safety, freedom of association and immigrant workers.

Among the report's findings:

  • Many workers in the meatpacking and poultry industry suffer severe, life-threatening and sometimes life-ending injuries that are predictable and preventable. However, many of them cannot get the workers' compensation to which they are entitled.
  • Government regulations and enforcement fail to protect meat and poultry workers' safety and health and their right to compensation when hurt.
  • Many workers who try to unionize or bargain collectively are "spied on, harassed, pressured, threatened, suspended, fired, deported or otherwise victimized."
  • Meat and poultry employers exploit immigrant workers' fears of deportation by subjecting them to abusive workplace conditions.

"The meatpacking companies hire immigrant workers because they are often the only ones who will work under such terrible conditions," said Jamie Fellner, director of the U.S. program at Human Rights Watch. "And they exploit the illegal status of undocumented workers to keep them quiet."

Smithfield Foods: Report is 'full of inaccuracies'

Human Rights Watch points to Smithfield Foods as an example of "aggressive and unlawful company efforts to derail workers' organizing efforts."

Human Rights Watch claims that Smithfield management tried to sabotage a 1997 union election at its pork processing plant in Tar Heel, N.C., by firing union supporters, stationing police at plant gates to intimidate workers and other unscrupulous tactics. The National Labor Relations board ordered a new election, although Smithfield currently is appealing the ruling.

Smithfield Foods, which says the Human Rights Watch report is "full of inaccuracies and false statements" about the company, said in a statement that Tar Heel employees twice have "overwhelmingly" rebuffed union representation, "preferring a one-on-one relationship with their managers to discuss workplace issues."

"We continue to support our employees' right to choose whether to unionize, as long as the election process is fair," said Dennis Treacy, Smithfield Foods' vice president of environmental, community and government affairs. "It also should be noted that we have excellent relations with unions in locations where our employees have chosen to unionize in fair and open elections."

Treacy also noted the company has observed a "downward trend" in work injuries in its facilities over the past few years.

"In fact, Smithfield and the entire industry have been making significant strides in enhancing the workplace environment," Treacy said.

Smithfield Foods is the world's largest pork processor and hog producer, according to its Web site. The company, which employs 45,000 people worldwide, processes 20 million hogs and raises 12 million annually.

Tyson's 'Bill of Rights'

Tyson Foods, which sold $24.5 billion in beef, pork and chicken products in fiscal year 2003, responded to the Human Rights Watch report not only with strong words but also with what it calls a "Team Member Bill of Rights," which documents its workers' rights, benefits and responsibilities. The document, which was unveiled the day before the Human Rights Watch report, has been in development for several months, according to Tyson Foods.

"We're disappointed with the report's misleading conclusions, but not surprised given the author's ties to organized labor," the company said in a statement yesterday.

Among Tyson Foods' efforts to treat workers fairly, the company says it provides training programs focused on dignity and respect, ethics and the company's core values; trains managers on Tyson's code of conduct as well as the prevention of harassment and discrimination in the workplace; provides interpreters and English-as-a-second-language classes for its non-English-speaking workers; provides 100 part-time chaplains across its operations; and employs full-time safety managers and occupational nurses at most of its plants.

A phone call seeking comment from privately held Nebraska Beef Ltd. was not returned Wednesday. Human Rights Watch says the company did not respond to any of its requests for an interview for the report.

Industry groups blast report

Calling the report's author, Lance Compa, a "longtime union activist" (Compa is a labor rights researcher for the organization, according to Human Rights Watch), a spokesperson for the National Chicken Council said the report simply repeated many of the accusations that have been made against the poultry industry over the past 25 years.

"The fact is that the poultry industry has made excellent progress in improving workplace safety," said Richard Lobb, director of communications for the National Chicken Council, a Washington, D.C.-based, non-profit trade association representing the U.S. chicken industry. "In fact, the rate of injury in poultry processing is lower than it is in industry as a whole, according to publicly available data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. All injuries are regrettable, but many injuries in poultry processing are relatively minor. Injury cases that results in days away from work were 1.6 per 100 full-time equivalents in all manufacturing, but only 0.8 in poultry processing."

Lobb added that poultry companies follow federal and state laws and regulations on hiring, workplace safety and labor relations. He said the report clearly takes a pro-union bent, but he contends that "some plants choose to unionize and other don't."

"After experience with belonging to a union, workers in some plants have actually chosen to decertify the union," Lobb said. "It's their choice."

American Meat Institute President and CEO J. Patrick Boyle in a statement said "there are so many refutable claims and irresponsible accusations contained in the 175-page [Human Rights Watch] report that it would take another 175 pages to correct the errors."

Nevertheless, Boyle noted that injury and illness rates in the meat and poultry industry have been declining for more than a decade; that line speeds are monitored by the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service and "have not changed appreciably in 15 years"; and that OSHA closely monitors employers for underreporting, which is one of the charges leveled against the meat and poultry industry by Human Rights Watch in the report. Boyle also said the meatpacking industry has been on the "forefront" of the effort to ensure that only legal immigrants have access to jobs in the meat and poultry industry.

New federal and state laws are needed

Human Rights Watch, in its report summary, acknowledges that companies in the meat and poultry industry don't promise "rose garden workplaces," as "turning an 800-pound animal or even a 5-pound chicken into tenders" for the grocery store is, by nature, messy and dangerous work.

Still, the group contends that workers face challenges above and beyond those presented by their job tasks alone.

"These are not occasional lapses by employers paying insufficient attention to modern human resources management policies," the report says. "These are systematic human rights violations embedded in meat and poultry industry employment."

In broad terms, Human Rights Watch makes these recommendations in its report:

  • New federal and state laws and regulations are needed to reduce line speed in meat and poultry plants. Also, new ergonomics guidelines to reduce repetitive stress injuries are needed.
  • States should develop stronger workers' compensation laws and enforcement mechanisms, addressing issues such as underreporting of injuries and employer retaliation for workers' compensation claims.
  • Employers must honor workers' rights to organize and bargain collectively and employers must halt aggressive, intimidating anti-organizing campaigns that take advantage of loopholes and weaknesses in the U.S. labor law system.
  • Congress should enact legislation that prohibits employers from permanently replacing striking workers as well as legislation that includes stronger remedies for violations of workers' rights.
  • New laws and policies should ensure respect for the human rights of immigrant workers, whatever their legal status.

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