US: Meat Packing Industry Criticized on Human Rights Grounds

Publisher Name: 
New York Times




For
the first time, Human Rights Watch has issued a report that harshly
criticizes a single industry in the United States, concluding that the
nation's meat packing industry has such bad working conditions that it
violates basic human and worker rights.

In a report issued today, Human Rights Watch, often echoing Upton
Sinclair's "The Jungle," found that jobs in many beef, pork and poultry
plants were so dangerous that the industry violated international
agreements promising a safe workplace.

Noting that the industry's injury rate was three times that of
private industry over all, the report describes plants where exhausted
employees slice into carcasses at a frenzied pace hour after hour,
often suffering injuries from a slip of the knife or from repeating the
same motion more than 10,000 times a day. The report describes workers
being asphyxiated by fumes and having their legs cut off and hands
crushed.

"Meat packing is the most dangerous factory job in America," said
Lance Compa, the report's author. "Dangerous conditions are cheaper for
companies - and the government does next to nothing."

The report also concluded that packing companies violated human and
labor rights by suppressing their employees' efforts to organize by,
for example, often firing employees who support a union. The report
asserted that slaughterhouse and packing plants also flouted
international rules by taking advantage of workers' immigration status
- in some plants two-thirds of the workers are illegal immigrants - to
subject them to inferior treatment.

"Every country has its horrors, and this industry is one of the
horrors in the United States," said Jamie Fellner, director of United
States programs for Human Rights Watch. "One of the goals of Human
Rights Watch is to promote the understanding that workers rights are
human rights. The right to organize and the right to have a safe place
to work are human rights no less than the right not to be tortured."

Industry officials denied that they violated workers' rights, saying
that the number of injuries was declining and that packing companies
did their utmost to make their plants safe. The industry also asserted
that packing companies did not violate laws allowing workers to
unionize and did not treat workers more harshly because of their
immigration status.

J. Patrick Boyle, president of the American Meat Institute, said the report was "replete with falsehoods and baseless claims."

"In fact, there are so many refutable claims and irresponsible
accusations contained in this 175-page report that it would take
another 175 pages to correct the errors," Mr. Boyle said.

The report, "Blood, Sweat and Fear: Workers' Rights in U.S. Meat and
Poultry Plants," focuses on Omaha for beef, Tarheel, N.C, for pork and
Northwest Arkansas for poultry.

In his research, Mr. Compa, who is a professor of industrial and
labor relations at Cornell University, focused on three companies:
Tyson Foods, Smithfield Foods and Nebraska Beef. He spent more than a
year preparing the report and based it on interviews with workers,
company responses, regulatory reports, judicial rulings and court
testimony.

"Nearly every worker interviewed for this report bore physical signs
of a serious injury suffered from working in a meat or poultry plant,"
the report said. "Meat and poultry industry employers set up the
workplaces and practices that create these dangers, but they treat the
resulting mayhem as a normal, natural part of the production process,
not as what it is - repeated violations of international human rights
standards."

The report said that many companies pressured injured workers not to
file worker compensation when they are injured as a way to save the
companies money on medical bills and worker compensation payments.

Gary Mickelson, a spokesman for Tyson Foods said: "We're
disappointed by the report's misleading conclusions, but not surprised
given the author's extensive ties to organized labor. Ensuring our team
members are treated fairly is an integral part of the way we do
business."

Dennis Treacy, Smithfield's vice president for environmental
community and government affairs, faulted the report for focusing on
labor violations from nearly a decade ago.

"They make no mention of the current situation of our plants or anybody else's," he said. "We're proud of our plants."

He said worker safety was one of Smithfield's highest priorities and
that the company was appealing a National Labor Relations Board
decision finding dozens of labor law violations against workers trying
to unionize its Tar Heel pork-processing plant in 1997.

The Human Rights Watch report describes Smithfield's violations
during that 1997 unionization drive, including firing pro-union
workers, stationing police officers at plant gates to intimidate
workers and orchestrating an assault on union supporters.

Human Rights Watch called on federal safety officials to increase
enforcement and to slow the line speed in packing plants to reduce the
number of repetitive stress injuries. The group urged state officials
to enforce worker compensation laws more vigorously, and it urged
companies not to fire and intimidate workers seeking to unionize.

Officials from Nebraska Beef did not respond to inquiries about the report.

AMP Section Name:Food and Agriculture
  • 116 Human Rights