Tom Fritzsche is a Staff Attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center. He began his legal career as a Skadden Fellow with the SPLC, through which he has represented workers fighting retaliation for asserting their basic workplace rights to be paid a minimum wage and to be free from sexual harassment and discrimination. He is the author of SPLC's 2013 report, Unsafe at These Speeds: Alabama's Poultry Industry and Its Disposable Workers, which discusses the results of over 300 interviews with current and former poultry workers that Fritzsche and his SPLC and Alabama Appleseed colleagues conducted. Fritzsche previously worked as a labor organizer with the Service Employees International Union and as a health outreach worker and interpreter with the Maine Migrant Health Program. He is a graduate of Amherst College and New York University School of Law, where he was a Bickel and Brewer Latino Institute for Human Rights Scholar and a student advocate in the Immigrant Rights Clinic.
My name is Tom Fritzsche, and I am a Staff Attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Under Article V of the American Convention on Human Rights, “[e]very person has the right to have his physical, mental, and moral integrity respected.” Yet every day, workers in U.S. meatpacking and poultry processing plants face brutal working conditions in some of the most dangerous jobs in America. The meat and poultry processing industries violate the fundamental human rights of their workers, who come from all over the hemisphere, by systematically exploiting the lack of work speed safety regulations in the United States. The U.S. in turn negligently permits these industries to inflict disabling harm on thousands of their employees.
The overwhelming majority of poultry processing and meat packing workers suffer severe, crippling injuries due to tendon, nerve, joint, and bone damage caused by dangerous working conditions. The most pervasive injuries and illnesses result primarily from fast work speeds. The industry’s massive disassembly lines can slaughter and process 400 head of livestock per hour and more than 10,000 chickens per hour, forcing workers to maintain intensely high work speeds in cold conditions with slippery floors and dull knives. Workers often perform between 20,000 and 100,000 cutting, pulling, grabbing, or hanging motions in a single shift. This causes workers great pain in their hands, wrists, arms, and backs, but when they ask for a break to rest or visit medical personnel in their plants, they are usually sent right back to the same jobs without meaningful treatment or accommodations. The work speed is so unrelenting that it has forced workers to urinate and defecate in their clothing while working on the line because employers deny reasonable bathroom use, violating workers’ rights to dignity.
Other prevalent types of injuries workers suffer include lacerations, amputations of fingers or limbs, chemical burns and skin infections, and respiratory illnesses.
The United States Department of Agriculture has proposed a new regulation that would make these violations worse by permitting companies to operate poultry plant evisceration lines as fast as 175 birds per minute. The organizations petitioning the Commission, along with many other human rights groups and organized labor unions, have submitted comments to the USDA urging it to abandon this rule, and have informed the agency that it is about to subject workers to grave human rights violations. Nonetheless, the administration’s regulatory calendar projects that it will finalize this rule this April, 2014. This exhaustion of our domestic avenues for relief is part of why we are here before the Commission seeking assistance.
The petitioners here today, as part of a coalition of 15 civil and human rights organizations, also submitted a rulemaking petition to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration as well as to the USDA asking for a clear, enforceable work speed standard to protect workers’ health and safety, but we have yet to receive a response.
The United States is failing to protect meatpacking and poultry processing workers from these rampant violations of their human rights to safe and healthy workplaces. There is no enforceable work speed standard, and existing worker protections are inadequate to prevent the most pervasive injuries and human rights violations.
Testifying before the Commission today will be meatpacking worker Teresa Martínez, poultry processing worker Gwen Clements, Nebraska Appleseed attorney Omaid Zabih, Liz Borkowski from the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health, meatpacking worker Juan Martínez, and Lee Pearl Duff, who is the mother of deceased poultry processing worker Ronnie Duff. Our delegation also includes poultry processing worker Lashunda Bobbitt of the Coalition of Poultry Workers, Rochelle Hammer of the Midwest Coalition for Human Rights and the University of Minnesota, Divya Prasad and Apreill Hartsfield of the Southern Poverty Law Center, and Gloria Sarmiento and Becky Gould of Nebraska Appleseed.
Closing and Necessary Next Steps
The testimony of meat and poultry processing workers, government reports, surveys, and medical research all demonstrate that the human rights of meatpacking and poultry workers are routinely violated without adequate protections from the government.
The Commission should call upon the United States government to implement work speed safety standards that reduce line speeds and permit meatpacking and poultry processing workers to perform their duties in a safe environment that does not expose them to permanently disabling, life-changing injuries. It should also call upon the U.S. government to stop the USDA’s proposed rule, which will further increase already dangerous line speeds in poultry processing.
The Commission should engage in ongoing monitoring and communication with the U.S. government urging it to undertake rulemaking to set an enforceable work speed standard as outlined in the rulemaking petition submitted to OSHA and the USDA.
The Commission should further investigate by visiting a U.S. meatpacking or poultry processing plant and speaking with additional workers in that community.
Download a pdf of Tom's testimony here.