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US: Meat Packing Industry Criticized on Human Rights Grounds


by Steven GreenhouseNew York Times
January 25th, 2005



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.





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