“Current labor laws protect companies more than workers. Many times, we are being forced to work under unsafe and unhealthy working conditions without the protection of the law. They have been calling us essential workers but we are still being treated as disposable. It’s time to pass laws that truly protect workers.”
– Meat processing worker with 18 years of experience in one Missouri facility
Meat and poultry processing workers have been organizing for safe working conditions and a voice in their workplace for decades. Many have spoken out about the hazardous and exploitative conditions in pork, beef and poultry plants across the U.S. – the vast majority of which are owned by four massive corporations: Cargill, Tyson Foods, JBS, and National Beef Packing Co.
The majority of workers in this sector are from BIPOC communities, and when compared with the workforce at large, they are much more likely to be born outside of the US and/or lack citizenship status. They frequently report injuries from excessive and unsafe line speeds, which can create lifelong complications. Line speeds are not the only hazards: workers are forced to operate dangerous machinery without adequate training, and are exposed to harmful chemicals which can lead to poisoning and death. Workers are denied bathroom breaks and describe a general culture of abuse, fear and retaliation from employers when they try to organize or ask for changes in their workplace.
During the pandemic, meat companies pushed workers to keep working without putting critical protections in place. We now know they also used the threat of supply chain shortages to exempt themselves from nationwide COVID protocols and keep plants open, earning them record-breaking profits. With the pandemic exemption, deregulation of the pork industry, and few consequences for violations from agencies like OSHA, these conditions are only worsening.
But workers in these plants continue to organize, through grassroots organizations and FCWA members like Venceremos, Rural Community Workers Alliance and CATA, and they have a critical need for stronger legal protections. This week, Senator Booker and Representative Ro Khanna re-introduced the Protecting America’s Meatpacking Workers Act (PAMWA) as part of a package of bills tackling injustice in the food system. PAMWA would provide essential protections for workers, including limiting line speed waivers, enhancing protection from retaliation for workers who speak up, ensuring access to proper medical care, eliminating unreasonable restrictions on workers’ use of bathrooms, and requiring OSHA to develop enforceable standards to protect workers from musculoskeletal disorders and airborne diseases, while addressing the stranglehold that a handful of corporations have over this industry.
“Day after day meat processing workers sacrifice their health and safety to feed all of us in this country, despite the hazards and risks they face. This is an opportunity for congress to provide meatpacking workers with necessary legal protections that would greatly improve the safety of their workplaces while protecting their right to speak out freely against mistreatment” said Axel Funtes, Executive Director of the Rural Community Workers Alliance. “Here in Missouri, at the Rural Community Workers Alliance, we listened to our workers’ stories – the PAMWA bill includes the voices of these working people and is a vital step to reform health and safety standards across our food systems.”
While there is still much more to do to protect workers and support worker organizing in meat processing plants, the provisions in this Bill are a critically important step and we are urging Congress to support this legislation.
Illustration by Aaron Hughes