WORKER ABUSE ALLEGED - The meat processing industry counters claims that it mistreats and neglects employees.

The New York City, New York-headquartered Human Rights Watch claimed that workers in U.S. meat and poultry processing plants are exposed to dangerous conditions, suffer debilitating injuries, fear being fired, and don’t receive all of the compensation to which they are entitled.

“Workers in American beef, pork, and poultry slaughtering and processing plants perform dangerous jobs in difficult conditions,” Human Rights Watch said in its 175-page report, Blood, Sweat, and Fear: Workers’ Rights in U.S. Meat and Poultry Plants.  The report said the increasing volume and speed of processing lines coupled with close quarters, poor training, and insufficient safeguards have made meat and poultry work hazardous.  “On each work shift, workers make up to 30,000 hard-cutting motions with sharp knives, causing massive repetitive motion injuries and frequent lacerations,” Human Rights Watch said.  “Workers often do not receive compensation for workplace injuries because companies fail to report injuries, delay and deny claims, and take reprisals against workers who file them.”

“Meat and poultry industry companies do not promise rose-garden workplaces, nor should it be expected of them,” the human rights group admitted.  “Turning an eight hundred pound animal or even a five pound chicken into tenders for the supermarket checkout or fast food restaurant counter is by its nature demanding physical labor in bloody, greasy surroundings.  But workers in this industry face more than hard work in tough settings.  They contend with conditions, vulnerabilities, and abuses which violate human rights.”

Human Rights Watch also claimed that government regulations don’t support processing plant workers.  “Health and safety laws and regulations fail to address critical hazards in the meat and poultry industry,” the group said. ”Laws and agencies that are supposed to protect workers’ freedom of association are instead manipulated by employers to frustrate worker organizing.  Federal laws and policies on immigrant workers are a mass of contradictions and incentives to violate their rights.”

The Human Rights Watch report was based on a one-year study at three U.S. plants -- a Nebraska Beef plant in Nebraska; a Tyson Foods chicken plant in Arkansas, and a Smithfield Packing Co. pork plant in North Carolina.

American Meat Institute president and CEO J. Patrick Boyle said:  “The (Human Rights Watch) report alleging harsh working conditions and abusive employment practices in America’s meat and poultry processing plants is 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.”

Specifically Boyle said the allegations of extraordinarily high rates of injury, widespread underreporting of injuries, claims that workers are forced to work at an unprecedented volume and pace, claims that “many” workers in the industry are undocumented, and thus easily exploitable, and undue pressure against unionization al all false.

A release from the National Chicken Council stated:  “The document issued on working conditions in the meat and poultry industries was authored by a longtime union activist and repeats many of the accusations that have been made against the industry in the past quarter-century. The fact is that the poultry industry has made excellent progress in improving workplace safety. In fact, the rate of injury in poultry processing is lower than it is in industry as a whole, according to publicly available data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.  All injuries are regrettable, but many injuries in poultry processing are relatively minor.”

Injury cases that results in days away from work were 1.6 per 100 full-time equivalents in all manufacturing, but only 0.8 in poultry processing.

NCC added:  “Poultry companies follow federal and state laws and regulations on hiring, workplace safety, and labor relations.  The authors of this report clearly believe that unionization is desirable, but that question is strictly up to the workers themselves through a process closely monitored by the National Labor Relations Board.  Workers in some plants choose to unionize and others don’t.  After experience with belonging to a union, workers in some plants have actually chosen to decertify the union. It’s their choice.

Web posted: January 26, 2005 -  Meat News