Meat processing is one of the most dangerous jobs in the United States.
It’s also notoriously underpaid and performed primarily by immigrants and people of color. In 2019, US plants employed some 200,000 people in direct meat processing jobs, at wages amounting to less than $30,000 per year. And the work is brutally hard. In the case of pork processing, workers inspect and cut up 250-pound carcasses in freezing rooms, standing side by side, for eight to ten hours a day, churning out 1,000 pigs per day.
A key factor is line speeds: the faster the line, the greater the output and the higher the profits—and the greater the injuries. A 2018 investigation by the Guardian and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism found that US meat workers are already three times more likely to suffer serious harm than the average worker with pork and beef workers nearly seven times more likely to suffer repetitive stress injuries. And line speeds have been on the rise for the past several years, spurred on by a revolving door of federal regulators with deep industry ties.
Both the pace and organization of the work has left meat processing workers highly vulnerable to Covid-19. As of September 2020, some 43,000 meat packing workers have tested positive for the virus and over 200 have died. Hazardous conditions have been compounded by efforts to grant companies line speed waivers during the pandemic, and Trump’s executive order to order meat processing plants to remain open despite coronavirus outbreaks in meat processing towns.
Advocacy groups, including our partners Food Chain Workers Alliance and HEAL Food Alliance, even filed a civil rights complaint arguing the USDA and meat corporations put the lives of workers of color at risk.
In the debut episode of our new podcast series, Foodtopias, we speak with Axel Fuentes, executive director of Rural Community Workers Alliance in Milan, Missouri—home to a Smithfield pork plant—and Christina Spach, national organizer with Food Chain Workers Alliance. And in the companion Real Food Reads episode, we talk to Jose Olivia, a contributing author to the new volume Bite Back: People Taking On Corporate Food and Winning, about successful labor and food movement strategies.
Building power with food workers,
Tanya, Tiffani, Christina, and Anna
Header image: US Government Accountability Office via Wikimedia Commons