With Doctor Roberto Ruiz
COVID-19 and the other pandemics

A guidebook

On April 27, Rel UITA (IUF Latin America) launched The Meatpacking Plants Pandemics in digital format, a book that was made possible by the support of Sweden’s Union-to-Union. Ahead of the launch of the printed version in São Paulo next week, we spoke about the book with Doctor Roberto Ruiz, the man behind this work.

Amalia Antúnez

10 | 05 | 2022

Roberto Ruiz | Photo: Gerardo Iglesias

For those who do not know him, Doctor Roberto is a physician who specializes in occupational medicine and a researcher at the Federal University of Santa Catarina. He is also an old friend of Rel UITA and has been a longtime advisor to it on his field of expertise, with successful interventions in Argentina and Central America. Above all, he is a tireless fighter and activist for workers’ health.

In Brazil, he was one of the architects and promoters of the NR36, a norm that regulates working conditions in the meatpacking sector. This regulation was adopted at a time when the sector was a veritable factory of injured workers, and Rel UITA was there from the start, supporting and furthering that process.

More recently, when the whole world was hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, Brazil’s meatpacking plants became a hotspot for infection. The very characteristics of this industry (cold, humidity, agglomeration) favored mass contagion waves and COVID joined a host of preexisting health risks, putting workers and union leaders on alert.

That concern gave way to an initiative aimed at compiling any research conducted on the subject.

“Originally, the idea was to publish something on the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on Brazilian meatpacking plants, because of the high infection rate of the virus in this industry,” Doctor Roberto said.

But as research progressed, other underlying pandemics began to emerge, in addition to this pandemic, which was disproportionately affecting these workers. COVID-19 was, thus, a new illness that came to aggravate what was already an unhealthy environment.

The other pandemics

“So we borrowed the term pandemic from public health and used it as a metaphor to portray the other ‘pandemics’ found in the meatpacking industry, such as repetitive strain injuries and work-related musculoskeletal disorders (RSI-WMSDs), as well as occupational accidents,” he explained.

There are environmental risks, in addition to COVID, that affect workers in this industry more. From January 2016 to December 2020 there were 85,123 occupational illnesses and accidents typical of the meatpacking industry, 64 of which were fatal.

During the first waves of coronavirus cases, the government of Brazil joined forces with the sector’s leading companies, which also dominate the global animal protein market, to push for a revision of the NR36, with the aim of relaxing its provisions.

“The book also came as a response to this attempt to undermine the NR36, a norm that was the result of a long and arduous struggle waged by the organized labor movement, the trade union confederations CONTAC and CNTA—both affiliates of the IUF—and the always timely involvement of the Labor Prosecutor’s Office [Ministério Público do Trabalho – MPT],” Ruiz said.

“This is a norm that guarantees minimum conditions for the prevention of repetitive strain injuries and accidents in one of the industries in Brazil that causes the most illnesses to its workers,” he underlined.

Beyond meatpacking plants

The text of the NR36 itself expressly states that what it contains are minimum provisions for the prevention of occupational accidents and illnesses, so that relaxing them, as the business sector and the government sought to do, would be a fatal step backwards.

According to Doctor Roberto, the publication is intended especially for meatpacking workers and union leaders, but it can also be an excellent guide for workers in other branches of production.

“The book provides a general idea of how to organize to effectively improve working conditions in the sector,” he said.

There is also much expectation that the publication will be replicated in other countries—not just in Argentina and Uruguay, where there is a significant meatpacking industry, but also in countries such as Germany and the United States—and that it will serve to broaden the debate on how to improve working conditions, taking it from meatpacking plants to other sectors.

“The book is dedicated to fellow worker Siderlei de Oliveira. Without his struggle and determination, the NR36 would be just a project, a pipe dream,” he concluded.