Slaughterhouse workers in peril.

A Willem Bastiaan Tholen depiction of a slaughterhouse.

Workers in slaughterhouses and meat processing centers in the U.S have always had thankless and often hazardous jobs, jobs which have recently become much more so due to the global pandemic. These industries employ over 500,000 workers, most of whom are black and brown people living at or below the poverty line. Throughout U.S history, the meat industry has largely employed African Americans, but for the past few decades many Latin Americans have been a growing part of the workforce. The industry’s workers now consist of approximately 38% of people born outside of the U.S. Many of them are undocumented and have little to no recourse when they are treated poorly.

Historically, the governmental agencies meant to oversee the health and safety of workers and ensure that the businesses are following basic labor laws have time and time again failed to do so, leaving the industries to largely regulate themselves. What comes out of a system like this is a whole lot of exploited people that society has already decided to cast away. Due to the job’s horrid conditions and low pay, the turnover rate hits around 100% per year, so companies have turned to actively recruiting people from other countries, especially from Mexico. Once employed, workers are sometimes given financial incentive to recruit friends and family from their native countries to come and work for the same company. Employers have also been known to help undocumented workers forge social security cards.

Workers in this industry are in precarious situations. Given that most companies are “at will”, meaning they can fire anyone for any cause, complaints about safety or fairness do not move up the chain of command. Many face the threat of deportation, which would mean that they would no longer be able to send money home to their families.

The most dangerous aspect to working in a meat-processing plant is the speed at which one must slaughter and process animals in order to keep up with quotas. The speed that the assembly line runs is set only at what sanitation laws allow for, and an 8 hour shift trying to keep up that kind of speed is mentally and physically exhausting. Then, employees said that they will usually be asked to work extra hours, which is when most accidents and injuries occur. Most plants never stop running in order to meet the high demand Americans have for meat, so workers labor around the clock.

The line is so fast there is no time to sharpen the knife. The knife gets dull and you have to cut harder. That’s when it really starts to hurt, and that’s when you cut yourself”, said an anonymous worker.

These types of jobs already leave workers vulnerable and prone to injuries, but the recent pandemic has brought on an entirely new level of fear. Workers in the meat industry have been infected with COVID-19 at places such as Smithfield, Tyson, and JBS. One Smithfield plant in Sioux Falls, North Dakota has seen over 783 COVID-19 cases. Workers are saying that they’re not being provided with enough PPE, nor are they able to keep an adequate amount of social distancing between one another due to the cramped working conditions. A nonprofit organization called Rural Community Workers Alliance, as well as an employee, filed a lawsuit against Smithfield in regards to a plant in Milan, Missouri allegedly not following safety standards and health. The company was offering workers a $500 bonus in early April if they had perfect attendance all month, a move that has come under scrutiny.

“Many of the workers have families, including children they need to support, and many are currently living paycheck-to-paycheck, the $500 bonus is a substantial incentive for workers to continue working at the Plant even when they are experiencing symptoms”, the anonymous workers said in the lawsuit.

The lawsuit against Smithfield asks for the company to provide more PPE, breaks for workers to sanitize their hands, a solid plan to test workers and trace the virus, as well as a plan to keep workers socially distanced.

Workers at Tyson plants have also been falling ill with the virus. Hundreds have tested positive, while five have already died there. At least 20 meatpacking workers have died from the virus so far. Tyson has closed one plant in Iowa, and another in Virginia due to the outbreaks. Other companies have closed down their plants as well, which has disrupted the food supply chain. Altogether, 13 plants have closed so far, furloughing or laying off around 25,000 workers.

Although these workers are clearly suffering, Trump has decided to invoke the Defense Production Act, which demands that meat processing plants stay open despite the COVID-19 outbreaks. This is one of the few times the president has used the act to require production continue, so the man clearly prioritizes eating meat over keeping people safe and the virus contained.

Writer. BA in anthropology. Psychology grad student.