Jun 1, 2020
Over the past month, the number of workers infected with COVID-19 in three of the biggest meat processors in the U.S.—Tyson Foods, Smithfield Foods and JBS—has jumped from 3,000 to 17,000, according to the Washington Post. COVID-19-inflicted deaths of the workers surged from 17 to at least 66. This drastic infection rate increase happened after the U.S. government allowed reopening of more than half of the 30 meat processing plants that were shuttered because of the coronavirus.
After bringing these workers back to work, these companies claimed that they had taken extra steps to protect the workers by providing tests, masks, other protective equipment, and putting in partitions separating the workers, etc. But in reality, these are not nearly enough. The companies continue to maximize the line speeds. In one plant, the workers are forced to slaughter and process more than 30,000 pigs in a day. So, workers are crammed virtually shoulder-to-shoulder to tend production lines. Jobs like “gut snatchers” require people to work right next to each other, slicing open pigs and pulling out entrails.
Very short break time, totaling 60 minutes on every 11-hour shift, force the workers to eat together in crowded cafeterias and walk the same narrow hallways, making social distancing practically impossible. Some workers wear diapers on the line to avoid having to leave for a bathroom break.
The meat and poultry industry in the country is dominated by a few meat processing companies, including JBS, Tyson Foods, Cargill Meat Solutions, and National Beef Packing. These very large companies process meat through a few very large plants. Roughly 40 of the largest plants supply about 90% of the pork, and a little more than 50 plants provide 98% of the beef in the US.
Much of the workforce is made up of immigrant workers, that is, the most vulnerable parts of the workforce. Many are refugees from all the continents of the world. They have few legal rights. And many live in fear that if they lose their job, they can be deported, or they could be separated from their families.
Over a century ago, The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair, described such horrible conditions in the meat packing plants that it caused a scandal. In the essentials, conditions haven’t changed. Profit is still the king of this jungle, produced by a workforce in a state of semi-slavery.