Coronavirus outbreaks have struck workers in meat processing plants around the world. But this is not about meat—it’s about profit.
Globally meat plants have persistently been centres for outbreaks, with some of the biggest clusters in the US focused on slaughterhouses. The cases are due to poor working conditions and living quarters in a sector that is in a “disastrous race to the bottom”.
The Food and Environment Reporting Network (Fern) has been tracking the outbreaks. It says nearly tens of thousands of meat plant workers across the US and Europe have been infected with the virus and hundreds have died.
They include a chicken processing site in Anglesey, where over 150 workers were infected, and other plants in Wrexham and West Yorkshire.
Working conditions for migrants in German slaughterhouses are under the spotlight after more than 1,500 people caught the virus at one. The majority of those infected were Romanian and Bulgarian migrants living in shared housing.
This should come as no surprise.
“The entire sector is in a disastrous race to the bottom,” said Peter Schmidt of the German NGG food workers’ union. “It’s driven by the market and by consumer demand for cheap meat.
“The working conditions in these plants are the absolute worst—cold, close together, working at high speed.
“And the housing. When we were looking at it, we found that people were having to share beds.
“You do a 12-hour shift and then you change over.”
US meat plants have been hit harder than European ones with at least 27,888 infections and 100 deaths by 25 June, according to Fern.
It is leading to a supply chain crisis.
A wave of mergers and acquisitions in the food industry from the 1980s onwards means a tiny number of large corporations dominate each link in the supply chain.
In recent years, meat packing bosses have successfully lobbied regulators in the US and Europe to increase line speeds.
Workers stand shoulder to shoulder. They have to cut and debone animals so quickly that they can’t pause long enough to cover a cough, much less go to the toilet, without carcasses passing them by.
Social distancing is virtually impossible in a modern meat plant, making it an ideal environment for a virus to spread.
Some US chicken plant workers, given no regular toilet breaks, now wear nappies. In most plants a worker can ask for a break, but the machines are so loud they can’t be heard without speaking directly into the ear of a supervisor.
Until recently slaughterhouse workers had little or no access to personal protective equipment. Many of them were also encouraged to keep working even after exposure to the virus.
Add to this the fact that many meat plant workers are recent immigrants who live in crowded conditions and often have little or no access to health care. You have a population at dangerously high risk of infection.
When the number of Covid-19 cases in US slaughterhouses exploded in late April, public health officials and governors began ordering plants to close. So on 26 April John Tyson, chairman of the US’s second-largest meat packer, Tyson Foods, took out ads in newspapers to declare that the food chain was “breaking”.
In order to reopen their production lines, Tyson and his fellow bosses wanted the federal government to step in and pre-empt local health authorities. They also needed liability protection, in case workers or unions sued them for failing to observe health and safety regulations.
President Donald Trump duly obliged bosses by invoking the Defence Production Act. After refusing to use the Act to boost production of coronavirus test kits, he declared industrial meat production a “scarce and critical material essential to the national defence”.
This took the decision to reopen or close meat plants out of local hands. It forced workers back to work without any mandatory safety precautions and offered employers protection from liability for their negligence.
So, for instance, Tyson reopened a meat packing plant in Waterloo, Iowa, where more than a thousand workers had tested positive for the virus.
These are men and women who debone chicken carcasses that move down a line at 175 birds a minute.
The meat industry encompasses the boardrooms of some of the largest companies on the planet to killing floors with medieval working conditions.
Conditions for workers are barbaric. Most are paid low wages to work long hours in the cold and damp. The skilled workers are the boners. They generally finish their cutting life in the meat industry by their mid-thirties.
Boners work with a gauntlet and a long knife. They wear chainmail to protect their crotches.
The going rate for a boner who cuts themselves not to report the incident is a couple hundred dollars per stitch.
Most other workers get paid the minimum wage—just. The notion of being a key worker is a little hollow if you are grossly underpaid and your life is disposable.
Meat industry is grinding down animals and workers
A few large corporations dominating the meat industry means the supply chain is so brittle that a single plant closing can cause havoc.
The scale of the problem is at its worst in the US.
Some 90 percent of abattoirs process over one million animals a year. Four companies now process more than 80 percent of beef cattle in US, another four process 57 percent of the pigs.
A single processing plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, processes 5 percent of the pork that Americans eat.
When an outbreak of Covid-19 forced the state’s governor to shut that plant in April, pig farmers who use it were stranded.
Once pigs reach slaughter weight, there is a small window of time to have them killed. Farmers can’t afford to keep feeding them. And even if they could, they would no longer fit onto the production lines in abattoirs.
Much the same is true for the hybrid industrial chickens. If allowed to live beyond six or seven weeks, they are susceptible to broken bones and heart problems and quickly become too large to hang on the disassembly line.
This is why farmers killed millions of animals when meat plants closed.
Under normal circumstances, the industrial pig or chicken is a marvel of capitalist production, bred to produce protein at warp speed when given the right food and drugs. They are made to maximise profit, rather than for pleasure or need.
So are the factories where they are killed and cut into parts—and they grind through workers at an alarming rate.
Meat production work is the most dangerous job in the US and that was before the virus.
Profits come first
People get infected with coronavirus from droplets, which may be coughed, sneezed or exhaled by an infected person.
If you stick people close together for long periods of time, the virus will spread.
One factor in refrigerated workplaces is noisy machinery, which requires people to shout.
This can increase the spread of infected droplets. Cold temperatures and aggressive ventilation systems may also help spread the virus.
The meat industry relies on poor migrant labourers, who are often forced to share cramped accommodation and travel to work in company buses.
All the things that make meat processing work dangerous could easily be fixed—except for the pursuit of profit.
The lines keep moving while workers die
Greeley, Colorado, is home to JBS’s US headquarters and a massive plant that employs 6,000 workers.
JBS is a multinational with a revenue of £40 billion annually as the world’s largest meat processor.
In Greeley, every day workers herd 5,000 cattle onto the kill floor, where more workers stun, bleed out, dehide, dehair, gut and split the carcasses.
The hanging halves are chilled and aged.
Then a line of still more workers, standing along a snaking conveyor system, butchers each into individual cuts for packaging.
For eight hours each shift, workers stand elbow to elbow, pulling slabs of beef off a conveyor belt and swiftly trimming them into cuts. The repetitive, forceful motion takes a toll.
Workers say hands tingle at night, and fingers are curled and misshapen from holding a knife and hook all day.
Over half of the US meat house workforce are new immigrants. And roughly half of those immigrants are undocumented. Often they have limited English skills.
During the first virus outbreak, some 245 workers tested positive and six died at the plant. The company refused to offer tests to its line workers, and reopened after being closed for a week.
“These were already workplaces with impossibly high injury rates for people in close-quarter work,” says Darcy Tromanhauser of the Nebraska Appleseed migrants’ rights group.
“Now, there’s this new layer of risk to life”.
JBS was made aware of the first positive case among its Greeley workers as early as 26 March. That day, the company gave employees 5 pounds of minced beef as a thank you for coming to work, and the plant continued to operate as normal.
As more workers were hospitalised and tested positive, fear began to spread.
On Monday 30 March, more than 800 employees walked off the job at the plant.
But the next morning the plant once again opened as usual, and JBS still had made no public acknowledgment of its cases.
Still the line continued to run. And workers began to die.
Since April unions have announced that they got £3 per hour pay increase for workers. So the lines kept moving.
Workers interviewed by Nebraska Appleseed reported that supervisors “are telling people that even if they are positive they can go to work”. They are told “to keep it on the down low” and “to not say anything or they will get fired”.
So the lines keep moving.