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New Human Rights Watch report highlights dangers in industry SPLC seeks to reform

A new report released by Human Rights Watch today highlights the increasingly dangerous conditions facing meatpacking workers across the United States – underscoring dangers the SPLC uncovered within an industry it has long sought to reform.

The report, “‘When We’re Dead and Buried, Our Bones Will Keep Hurting’: Workers’ Rights Under Threat in U.S. Meat and Poultry Plants,” describes alarmingly high rates of serious injury and chronic illness among workers at chicken, hog, and cattle slaughtering and processing plants. The organization interviewed workers who described serious job-related injuries or illnesses, and nearly all the interviewed workers identified production speed as the factor that made their job dangerous.

Trump administration policies threaten to worsen these already dangerous conditions by allowing more poultry companies to increase the speed of slaughter, also known as “line speeds.” The government has also proposed regulations that would bring in new inspection systems and eliminate caps on slaughter line speeds altogether for pork producers, and is considering the same for beef, Food & Water Watch, an advocacy organization, reports.

“The SPLC’s work has found that workers in this industry often place their health – and even their lives – at risk as they attempt to keep up with the frantic pace within these plants,” said Julia Solórzano, an SPLC staff attorney quoted in the report. “As this report shows, the Trump administration’s policies will accelerate not only work speeds, but the danger these workers face.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed 49 current and former workers at chicken, pig, and cattle slaughtering and processing plants in several U.S. states, along with more than 50 community and worker leaders, trade union representatives, attorneys, academic researchers, experts on workers’ safety and health, and former government officials. The group also reviewed extensive secondary sources of information, including reports from nongovernmental organizations, such as the SPLC, and federal investigators, as well as government and academic studies, publicly available government data, and medical literature.

“U.S. meat and poultry workers are put under intense pressure to keep up with production, risking traumatic injury and disabling illness,” said Matt McConnell, research fellow in the Business and Human Rights Division and U.S. Program at Human Rights Watch. “By giving companies the green light to accelerate their production, the U.S. government is putting workers’ health on the line.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed workers who said they are pressured to work at speeds that place them at risk of serious, potentially life-threatening injury, even at plants that do not operate at the fastest speeds allowed.

“We’ve already gone from the line of exhaustion to the line of pain,” said Ignacio Davalos, a worker at a hog plant in Nebraska. “When we’re dead and buried, our bones will keep hurting.”

The government has also further weakened oversight of worker safety at meat and poultry companies, including a decline in enforcement actions by the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the U.S. agency charged with oversight of labor standards. What’s more, the true extent of the harms faced by workers is little understood, as industry reporting on rates of injury and illness lacks transparency. Numerous studies have shown discrepancies between federal data on occupational injury and illness in the industry and the experience of workers.

The report builds on previous research by the SPLC. In 2013, the SPLC released “Unsafe at These Speeds: Alabama’s Poultry Industry and its Disposable Workers.” The report, a collaboration with Alabama Appleseed, highlighted the damaging effects of the relentless pace workers must keep.

“My hands swelled up and were extremely painful,” Carlos, who cut chicken wings and breasts, said when interviewed for the report. “When I was in so much pain that I had to stop, I asked for breaks, but the company told me I had to keep working. Because of the pressure to work fast, I can’t use my arms, wrists and hands the way I could before I worked in the poultry plant.”

In 2018, the SPLC reported on how some poultry processors have contracted with state prisons to supply labor to their plants.

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