The meat industry doesn’t care about its workers. This isn’t news to those who have been paying attention. Recent media coverage on President Trump’s executive order to keep slaughterhouses open despite COVID-19 outbreaks killing workers has thrust the meat industry’s power and disdain for its workers into the national spotlight. The meat industry has always treated its workers as replaceable cogs in a machine that is both dangerous to their health and detrimental to their mental and psychological wellbeing.
Slaughterhouse work is extremely hazardous, physically demanding, and pays abysmal wages. In fact, the average slaughterhouse worker makes only $25,010 per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, just loose change above the poverty line for a family of four. Meat processing plant jobs are some of the most dangerous jobs in today’s marketplace, and the government has done little over the years to enact regulations to improve working conditions. And now, in the middle of one of the worst public health crises in a hundred years, the Trump administration is actively working against the interest of the workers in order to benefit the corporations that stand to profit more off the backs of their labor force. By increasing line speeds and weakening what is already very lenient oversight, the Trump administration is making the conditions for vulnerable workers even more dangerous than before.
To make matters worse, a growing percentage of these workers are undocumented immigrants. These workers are taken advantage of at every corner as they try to make ends meet and provide for their families. The corporations that operate slaughterhouses know that undocumented workers are unable to bring these dark issues to light as doing so puts them at great risk of deportation and being separated from their families. Or, frightening enough as it already is, being sent back to conflict zones or war-torn regions. Many of these workers don’t understand English and are unable to speak out about the atrocities happening behind the slaughterhouse walls. Instead, they simply put their heads down and continue to work, knowing that they are replaceable. But debilitating injuries, abominable working conditions, and miserable paychecks make it so workers don’t stick around long.
In the 2001 book Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser talked about the astronomical turnover rate and immigrant-majority workforce during the 1980s at the then-Monfort owned Greeley Beef Plant in Colorado.
In the 1980s large numbers of young men and women from Mexico, Central America, and Southeast Asia started traveling to rural Colorado. Meatpacking jobs that had once provided a middle-class American life now offered little more than poverty wages. Instead of a waiting list, the slaughterhouse seemed to acquire a revolving door, as Monfort plowed through new hires to fill the roughly nine hundred jobs. During one eighteen-month period, more than five thousand different people were employed at the Greeley beef plant — an annual turnover rate of about 400 percent. The average worker quit or was fired every three months.
When the book was written, “roughly two-thirds of the workers at the beef plant in Greeley couldn’t speak English.” Today, that same beef plant in Greeley is owned by JBS USA and has grown into one of the biggest slaughterhouses in the country with more than 6,000 workers. It is also the same plant that’s made headlines because of an outbreak of COVID-19 that infected its labor force. Over 100 workers have already tested positive and five have died. The plant reopened after a mere nine-day hiatus, claiming to have implemented new safety measures. However, workers fear going back to the plant as JBS isn’t providing adequate testing for a virus whose incubation period is long and leaves many of those infected asymptomatic. According to JBS spokesman Cameron Bruett, “testing does not stop the virus and only provides a one-time snapshot of infection.” But what Bruett so dangerously fails to point out is that testing will show which asymptomatic workers are positive, allowing them to stay home in quarantine to curb the spread of the highly infectious virus within the plant.
The cramped working conditions along with lack of safety protocol and sanitary regulations have made slaughterhouses new hotspots for the spread of COVID-19. In mid-April, a Smithfield plant in South Dakota that’s responsible for the production of 4-5% of US pork was closed after more than 800 workers contracted the virus, making the slaughterhouse what is believed to be the “largest single-source coronavirus hotspot in the US.”
On April 22, the CDC published a 15-page memo urging Smithfield to start screening for the virus, educating workers on COVID-19 risks and prevention, improve upon social distancing measures, provide more PPE to workers, improve hygienic conditions, and much more. Smithfield Foods’ executive vice president of corporate affairs and compliance, Keira Lombardo, responding to the memo, said that Smithfield would “thoroughly and carefully examine the report point by point and respond in full once our assessment is complete.” But that vague response only says they will review and assess what their next steps would be. Considering Smithfield reported over $15 billion in revenue in 2018, it’s safe to assume they have access to funding that could be invested to improve the working conditions and provide whatever safety measures are needed if workers are going to be forced back to the kill floor. But the desire to protect profit margins and the inability to look out for their most vulnerable workers makes it that urgent recommendations by the CDC looking to protect workers will be reviewed and eventually “assessed” instead of immediately implemented. Protecting replaceable workers doesn’t seem to be in the best interest of shareholders who could see smaller returns if more money were to be spent on the health and safety of a dispensable workforce.
Trump’s executive order comes on the heels of mass animal killings implemented by meat companies that weren’t willing to lose money by keeping animals alive during the shutdown. The shutdown has disrupted the fragile supply chain in the food industry, exposing just how vulnerable it is to the introduction of unforeseen circumstances and unexpected crises. The sudden interruption to the supply chain brought on by the COVID-19 shutdown has left farmers with too many animals. The Guardian reports that more than two million animals have already been killed off and that number is expected to rise dramatically. This hit in revenue and profits for major corporations with strong lobbies and endless influence in Washington makes them willing to do whatever is necessary to open shop and get the kill lines running to normal again, regardless of how dangerous it is for the workers. The coverage of mass killings is another story that puts the industry in an extremely negative light. The meat industry is used to working far from the public eye, keeping its dirty practices in the dark as they know the truth about factory farming and slaughterhouses, both the treatment of animals and workers alike, would shock and enrage consumers.
But it might be too late. The curtain is being pulled back to reveal to the general public just how bad it is at slaughterhouses for the workers. Over the years, the focus of many activists has been to publicize the cruelty and appalling conditions faced by animals in slaughterhouses. The meat industry has fought those activists tooth and nail, using their lobbying power to pass powerful ag-gag laws to silence activists and reporters looking to tell these stories. However, not a lot of mainstream coverage has talked about the human rights violations and struggles of the vulnerable, underpaid, and overworked people that operate the slaughterhouses. These workers have always been taken advantage of and slaughterhouses purposely bring on the most vulnerable people who often have too much to lose by standing up for themselves and their fellow workers.
The situation for workers is far worse now. Beyond the countless dangers and struggles faced by slaughterhouse workers on a regular basis, now their lives (and the lives of their families) will be put at risk by being forced back to work with the COVID-19 pandemic still in full swing. And for what? To make sure that rich corporations don’t lose money. Remember, the workers are replaceable. But it’s too far-fetched of an idea for those in positions of power to do what’s right by their workers if it threatens the company’s bottom line.
Grant is the co-founder of Sentient Media. He currently lives in Brazil and has traveled across dozens of countries on assignment.