February 8, 2005

Prof's Study Criticizes State of Meat Industry

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The sizzling beef burger students devour for lunch may have been prepared in meatpacking plants where human rights are consistently violated, according to Prof. Lance Compa, collective bargaining, law and history, in the Human Rights Watch report “Blood, Sweat, and Fear: Workers’ Rights in U.S. Meat and Poultry Plants.”

Compa is the principal researcher and author of the 175-page report released last month that details the dangerous work conditions of the meatpacking industry and the threatening tactics employers use to discourage laborers from organizing unions and from filing claims for injury compensation.

“Workers in American beef, pork, and poultry slaughtering and processing plants, many of whom are immigrants, perform dangerous, physically demanding and exhausting jobs … The workers not only contend with abuses and an unprecedented volume and pace in sawing and cutting carcasses, but they also experience constant fear and risk, not only for their health and safety but for their jobs if they get hurt or attempt to organize,” Compa wrote.

Compa, along with Jamie Fellner, the U.S. program director for Human Rights Watch, conducted field research for the report at three meatpacking sites. The plants, located in Nebraska, North Carolina and Northwest Arkansas, were selected for their geographic and product line diversity.

Although they did not gain admittance into the facilities, they interviewed dozens of workers and corresponded with two of the companies by phone or in writing.

“Every worker I talked to had some kind of visible injury or evidence of a former injury,” said Compa. “One guy was blind in one eye.”

He cited processing-line speed, close-quarters cutting, heavy lifting, sullied work conditions, long hours and inadequate training and equipment as reasons for why the industry is “rife with hazards to life, limb, and health.”

In response, the American Meat Institute released a statement countering what it called “the falsehoods and misleading allegations in the report.”

J. Patrick Boyle, president and CEO of the institute, stated that “the meat and poultry industry has seen a significant and consistent decline in injury rates and illnesses for more than a decade.”

“Line speeds, which are monitored by USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, have not changed appreciably in 15 years, and are engineered to ensure that the amount of work reaching an employee is appropriate and safe,” Boyle continued.

However, Compa said, “Workers are afraid to report injuries because they think they might be fired, and in fact many of them are fired.”

“Lots of workers are undocumented, and they might be deported,” he explained as a major reason for why the industry, with its large number of immigrant workers, has observed a decrease in reported injuries.

Boyle also addressed the report’s claim that employers suppressed unions and worker organization. “Many workers have decided to remain non-union because they see little value in union membership. … Meatpacking plants are four times above the national average in union membership,” he stated.

Although numerous publications have criticized the meatpacking industry for violating labor laws and health and safety standards, this report marked the first one published by a human rights organization on a single industry, according to Compa.

“What we wanted to accomplish here was to put the situation under a human rights spotlight,” said Compa, who also wrote an earlier report on workers’ organizing rights for Human Rights Watch.

Fellner, who was project manager and main editor for the report, said, “We wanted to do something else on workers’ rights to keep pressing the issue that workers’ rights are human rights.”

The meatpacking industry had “a unique constellation of rights violations that we thought would be illuminating for other industries,” she added.

As for reforming the industry, Fellner said, “I think a lot depends on whether the federal government would be willing to step up to responsibilities. I don’t have any hope that the industry will do it on its own.”

Compa plans to revisit the meatpacking sites over the next few months and meet with community organizers and workers to discuss changes in laws and regulations.

According to him, this issue is relevant to college students because “it comes down to caring about morality and caring about social justice.”

“There’s a whole story behind that piece of chicken … and you really want to understand, I hope, the conditions of the workers who started off the process of getting you that piece in a slaughtering plant and that they’re suffering terrible injustices,” Compa said.

Archived article by By XIAOWEI CATHY TANG
Sun Staff Writer