Human Rights Watch Targets Meat, Poultry Producers in New Report
Jan. 26--In a blistering report on conditions facing workers in the nation's meat and poultry industries, a human-rights-advocacy group Tuesday said that companies systematically abuse workers' rights as the government fails to uphold them.
"It is unnatural that so much danger should be normal in someone's life," said Lance Compa, a Cornell University labor law expert and the author of the 175-page report, speaking at a news conference in Chicago.
The report was presented by Human Rights Watch, a group in based in New York that monitors rights around the globe.
Though based on interviews with workers and others at a beef-packing plant in Nebraska, a hog-slaughtering facility in North Carolina and a poultry-processing facility in Arkansas, Compa said, the report's findings apply across the board to the 500,000-worker industry.
Packinghouse workers, according to the report, regularly suffer life-threatening on-the-job dangers with little training or adequate equipment, are discouraged by companies from reporting their injuries and are pressured not to join unions.
A massive influx of immigrants, some in the U.S. illegally, has also created a workforce either unaware of its rights because of language difficulties or fretful about speaking out and being deported, Compa added.
"There is a culture of fear in many of these plants," Compa said.
The American Meat Institute, the leading trade organization for the nation's meat and poultry companies, promptly rejected the report, saying it was "replete with falsehoods and baseless claims."
In a separate interview, J. Patrick Boyle, the trade group's president and CEO, said packinghouse companies have not taken advantage of undocumented workers and have gone beyond required procedures to ferret out workers with fake identification cards.
As for workers' safety, he said, injury levels have been dropping since the early 1990s and "continue on the same decline."
The report said changes in 2002 in the way the government counts injuries in the packing houses have helped cover up the problem. But government officials disagreed.
"Overall injuries have dropped, and it is consistent with the pattern," said Kate Newman, a safety and health official in Washington, D.C., with the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The Human Rights Watch report pointed to Tyson Foods Inc., the world's largest meat and poultry producer, as a company that has tried "to keep unions out of its plants" and quoted an employee at an Arkansas poultry plant who said workers are "too scared" to talk about unions.
But Tyson officials, noting that one-third of their 90,000 hourly workers belong to unions, issued a statement rejecting the report's claims. The company also pointed to a document describing workers' rights, which it said it had released on Monday and would be posted in all of its facilities in the U.S.
In the case of Smithfield Foods Inc., the world's largest pork producer, the Human Rights Watch report cited a more than 10-year struggle by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union to organize the company's nearly 6,000-worker facility in Tar Heel, N.C.
An immigrant worker from Central America was quoted in the Human Rights Watch report as recalling a meeting in Tar Heel at which a company official told Latino workers that they should call the police if union organizers come to their houses.
A National Labor Relations Board judge ruled in 2000 that the company had violated the Tar Heel workers' organizing rights, but the company appealed the decision. After a lengthy delay, the NLRB last month upheld that ruling, prompting Smithfield to file an appeal in the federal courts.
"The company likes to follow the will of its employees, and up until now they haven't voted a union in," said Dennis Treacy, a Smithfield spokesman, who also disputed the report's claim that the company discourages workers from reporting their injuries.
"We don't turn our faces away from on-the-job injuries," he said. "We are very proud of our safety record."
But Loraine Ramos, an immigrant from Honduras and former employee at the Tar Heel plant who now works for the UFCW, painted a different portrait at the press conference.
A five-year veteran at the plant, she said she was hurt on the job two years ago, "because I didn't have any experience and I didn't know what I was doing."
She said her right hand was briefly caught in the plant's conveyor belt, leaving her with a scar. Still suffering from her injury, a year later she refused another job, she explained, because she did know how to do it.
Though known for its focus on human rights globally, Human Rights Watch is one of several organizations that have looked at the state of American packinghouse workers' rights, said Jamie Fellner, head of the U.S. program for the organization.
"Human-rights violations should not be tolerated, wherever they are," she said.
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© 2005, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.