United States | JBS | MEATPACKING

A light at the end of the tunnel?

A subcommittee on the coronavirus crisis formed by members of the new United States Congress has launched an investigation into widespread Covid-19 cases and deaths in several of that country’s meatpacking plants.
Foto: Gerardo Iglesias

The U.S. House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis notes on its website that, despite hundreds of outbreaks in meatpacking plants, the Trump administration issued only eight citations and ludicrous fines of 11 dollars per infected worker.

James E. Clyburn, chairman of the congressional subcommittee, sent letters to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and to the companies Tyson Foods, Smithfield Foods, and JBS USA demanding prompt action to contain the virus in the sector.

Tyson, Smithfield, and JBS are three of the largest meatpackers operating in the country and they have all had several outbreaks in their facilities.

“Public reports indicate that under the Trump Administration, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) failed to adequately carry out its responsibility for enforcing worker safety laws at meatpacking plants across the country, resulting in preventable infections and deaths,” Chairman Clyburn wrote.

Black, Hispanic, and poor workers

“It is imperative that the previous (Trump) Administration’s shortcomings are swiftly identified and rectified to save lives in the months before coronavirus vaccinations are available for all Americans,” Clyburn stressed in his letters.

The congressional subcommittee’s probe follows reports indicating that nearly 54,000 workers in 569 meatpacking plants in the United States have tested positive for the coronavirus, and more than 270 have died.

The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) has identified these plants as a source for “rapid transmission” of the coronavirus.

More than two-thirds of employees at meatpacking plants are Black or Hispanic, and almost half of all employees live in low-income households.

Under the Trump administration, OSHA issued only eight citations and a total of less than 80,000 dollars in fines for coronavirus-related violations in these companies, a paltry amount that has failed to curb the dangerous conditions faced by many workers.

Ludicrous fines

At a Smithfield Foods meatpacking plant in North Dakota, 1,294 workers were reported to have been infected with coronavirus. Four of them died and the fine imposed by the state agency was a mere 13,494 dollars, or what amounts to less than 11 dollars per infected worker. It should be noted that in 2019 Smithfield paid its CEO a whopping 14 million dollars.

In the last year, “OSHA failed to issue enforceable rules, respond in a timely manner to complaints, and issue meaningful fines when a company’s unsafe practices led to the deaths of employees,” the Chairman continued.

As a result, I am concerned that under the Trump administration OSHA did not fulfill its mission to protect vulnerable meatpacking workers during the pandemic.”

Clyburn also sent letters to JBS and the other two meat processing companies mentioned above, noting that according to public reports meatpackers have refused to take basic precautions to protect their workers, many of whom earn extremely low wages and lack adequate paid leave.

He also denounced these companies’ callous disregard for the health of their workers.

The congressional subcommittee has urged them to revise their position promptly or face greater sanctions.

JBS, the world’s largest animal protein processing company, has had at least 3,000 workers infected with coronavirus in the United States, and 18 of them have died.

Made in Brazil

In Brazil, the multinational corporation’s country of origin, the situation is not very different. Although no official data is available, the labor organizations that represent its workers estimate that 25 percent of all JBS employees have contracted the virus.

In Brazil, too, the scarce prevention and control measures implemented by the country’s meatpacking plants have turned them into a major source of contagion, but the government and its health agencies have prioritized profit over the health of workers.

In addition to the sector’s trade unions, the Labor Prosecutor’s Office is carrying out titanic efforts to protect workers in this sense.

Just as U.S. citizens have voted Trump out of office, Brazilians may just do the same with Jair Bolsonaro.

At least in the northern country, with the new administration, the most vulnerable workers are starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel.