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Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights will investigate human rights violations in the meatpacking industry

Meatpacking.pngThis past week, the Human Rights Program received news that a petition to the Inter-American Comission of Human Rights (IACHR) regarding the widespread, unsafe working conditions in US meatpacking plants will be heard before the court on March 25th. This petition--an effort of the Human Rights Program in partnership with the Midwest Coalition for Human Rights, Nebraska Appleseed Center for Law in the Public Interest, and the Southern Poverty Law Center--expressed severe concern on account of the dangerous and degrading work environment faced by meatpacking and poultry processing workers in the US.

The speed of the assembly line in American meatpacking and poultry processing plants is currently dangerously fast, and the USDA is pushing to make it even faster. A proposed regulation change for the poultry industry aims to increase processing line speeds, allowing poultry companies to accelerate the speed from 140 to 175 birds per minute, requiring workers to process approximately one chicken every 6 - 7 seconds. It also proposes removing hundreds of federal inspectors from the processing lines, replacing them with plant workers charged with the responsibility of identifying and removing tainted chicken. The deregulation of the means of production in poultry processing signifies the government's granting of greater power to this industry, allowing companies to control how their products are inspected and to intimidate workers from speaking up and stopping a line if they find contaminated poultry. When regulations and inspectors are slimmed down, this gives the companies more freedom in doing whatever it takes to cut costs of production and increase profit. And this has unsettling implications for the health of workers and the safety of American food.
The rapid pace of the line forces workers to carry out the repetitive motions of inspecting poultry and cutting meat (with dull knives) at shocking speeds, labor that leads to severe physical degradation of the body, particularly of the workers' hands. Moreover, workers are regularly exposed to dangerous chemicals and extremely cold temperatures without sufficient protective equipment. Nearly three out of four Alabama poultry workers interviewed for a report carried out by the Southern Poverty Law Center described suffering a significant work-related injury or illness, such as debilitating pain in their hands, cuts, gnarled fingers, chemical burns or respiratory problems; moreover, workers also described feeling silenced from reporting work-related injuries, forced to endure constant pain, and discouraged from slowing the processing line, even when they are hurt. As poultry processing companies (together with the USDA) push for an increase in the speed of the line, it remains that there are no set of mandatory guidelines to protect the health and safety of workers. The passing of the proposed USDA line-speed rule would surely exacerbate the already precarious and unsafe conditions faced by meatpacking and poultry processing workers.
This current system may be profitable for poultry companies, but it relies on the systematic exploitation of workers, the majority of whom are women, African Americans, and Latinos. As these groups continue to feel the heightened burden of faster production, they also are fearful of losing their jobs if they report injuries or ask for safer working conditions. The silence imposed upon workers by their employers is oppressive--it facilitates increasing levels of exploitation, and it further entrenches systemic discrimination and injustice in American society.
These issues are of profound importance in the struggle to improve human rights practices and to eliminate systemic discrimination and exploitation in the United States. They demand immediate address. The Human Rights Program shares a history of collaboration with the Midwest Coalition for Human Rights, Nebraska Appleseed Center for Law in the Public Interest, and the Southern Poverty Law Center in its dedication to eradicate the widespread injustice and to improve the protection of workers' human rights in the meatpacking industry. Through their combined efforts, these organizations have formed a coalition committed to the improvement of human rights practices in the meatpacking and poultry processing industry.
This coalition hopes that an investigation by the IACHR will raise awareness about the serious dangers meatpacking workers face and will pressure the U.S. government to improve human rights protections in the industry. The hearing presents an opportunity for the coalition to encourage US law and policy makers to urge the Administration to withdraw the proposed USDA line speed rule, to work with these law and policy makers to create new health and safety protections for workers in the meat and poultry industries, and to continue educating the media, law and policy makers, consumers, and others about the inadequate health and safety protections for workers in the meat and poultry industry and the detrimental effects on these workers' health.
The granting of a hearing before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights is a huge success in the efforts of the coalition, and signifies a leap forward for workers rights in the United States. The Human Rights Program hopes that the hearing will lead to improved working conditions not only in the meatpacking industry, but in other job sectors as well, as it represents the implementation of a new, higher standard in American corporations' labor practices, a standard that respects the human dignity of all individuals.
Written by Anna Meteyer