- Tyson Food executives in Iowa made bets on how many of their employees would contract COVID-19.
- Meatpacking horror stories like these aren’t surprising for those of us in the industry.
- The corporate level of this industry faces no accountability for their heinous actions.
- Craig Watts is a former contract poultry farmer.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating for America’s food workers, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the meatpacking industry.
USA Today reported last month that executives at the Triumph Foods meatpacking plant in St. Joseph, Missouri, lobbied government officials to keep the plant open at the height of the Spring coronavirus outbreak, a delay that led to hundreds of workers getting sick and at least two deaths.
In Iowa, not only did Tyson Food executives keep their factory open, but they also allegedly made bets on how many of their workers would contract the virus.
These are the latest examples of callous worker treatment by meatpackers – and of a failure of public agencies tasked with overseeing them. While this may be shocking to the general public, it isn’t surprising for those of us in the industry. I was a contract farmer for one of the biggest poultry companies in the US for 24 years. To me, this looks like standard operating procedure.
Par for the course
Nationally, more than 49,000 meatpacking plant workers have tested positive for COVID-19 and 253 have died.
Along with nursing homes and prisons, meat and poultry plants were the leading source of virus outbreaks in the spring. Workers on the processing line reported no way to social distance, no PPE, and no time to even cover a cough. But rather than quickly close the plants to control the outbreaks and establish safety measures, meatpacking companies dragged their feet.
Shortly after the largest plants did finally close, an executive order from President Donald Trump deemed them “essential” and allowed them to re-open, but with no mandate for worker protections.
I first talked with poultry plant workers about a decade ago, when I was still raising chickens. They told me what they had been promised in the job and that the conditions were definitely not as advertised; about intimidation and pressure to keep their heads down; about being treated as expendable.
This year, I’ve heard meatpacking workers, many of them immigrants and refugees, describe being afraid of the virus but even more afraid of speaking up. Speaking up could cost their job, and then how would they feed their family?
Take out my $500,000 mortgage on now-empty chicken houses, and we’ve got the same story.
I wanted to raise chickens and raise a family, that was all. I signed a contract with a major poultry company in 1992 and built those houses. The company hooked me by promising that after ten years, my mortgage would be satisfied and I could really make money raising birds. As it turned out, getting the barns paid off in ten years was a pipe dream. Every year, there was some new technology they wanted me to invest in, and the understanding was that if I didn’t do it, I wouldn’t get more birds.
The company controlled everything: they sent the feed, told me what medicines to give. Sometimes they delivered flocks of sick birds and I wasn’t allowed to make real changes to improve their health. If I complained, I might not get another flock. I needed the birds to pay the mortgage, so I was stuck.
In 2014, I finally did speak up about how the contract required me to treat the birds. The company tried to intimidate and discredit me, showing up on my farm for audits at all hours. I finally quit in 2016, but clearly this was bigger than me.
I got involved with Rural Advancement Fund International-USA (RAFI-USA) and other groups advocating for common sense regulations for the meat and poultry industry so the power wasn’t 100% in the hands of the companies. However, the meatpackers fought tooth and nail against any little thing to change the status quo, and they kept winning. Under the Trump Administration, the federal Grain Inspectors, Packers, and Stockyards Administration, the agency tasked with protecting contract farmers, was essentially eliminated when it was merged with another department in 2017.
I have seen again and again that when it comes to the big meatpacking companies, both federal and state oversight bodies act like customer service agencies instead of regulatory agencies. Customer service to the meatpackers, that is, not to the farmers or workers.
And here we are again. In October, a memo came out showing that meat industry lobby groups wrote parts of Trump’s executive order to re-open the plants. North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper backed off a pledge to release guidance for meatpacking plants due to industry pressure. Groups in Iowa have sued the state’s Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) saying the agency has not protected workers in several industries including meatpacking. The list goes on.
Meatpacking plant workers and farmers are both deemed “essential” in the pandemic. Why do we keep being treated instead as expendable, not only by the companies we work for, but by the very government agencies that are supposed to protect us?
Craig Watts is a former contract poultry farmer, who works part time as a farmer advocate at Rural Advancement Foundation International – USA (RAFI-USA).