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Meat industry violates human rights { January 26 2005 }

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January 26, 2005
Rights Group Condemns Meatpackers on Job Safety

For the first time, Human Rights Watch has issued a report that harshly criticizes a single industry in the United States, concluding that working conditions among the nation's meatpackers and slaughterhouses are so bad that they violate basic human rights.

The report, released yesterday, frequently echoes Upton Sinclair's classic on the industry, "The Jungle." It finds that jobs in many beef, pork and poultry plants are sufficiently dangerous to breach international agreements promising a safe workplace.

The report notes that meatpacking's injury rate is more than three times that of American private industry over all: 20 injuries per 100 meatpacking workers in 2001, as against 5.7 in all industry.

It describes plants where exhausted employees slice into carcasses at a frenzied pace hour after hour, often suffering injuries from a slip of the knife or from repeating a single motion more than 10,000 times a day. It tells of workers' being asphyxiated by fumes from decaying matter, of legs cut off, of hands crushed.

"Meatpacking is the most dangerous factory job in America," said the report's author, Lance Compa, who teaches industrial and labor relations at Cornell and is a former union organizer and negotiator. "Dangerous conditions are cheaper for companies, and the government does next to nothing."

Responding to that criticism, Richard Fairfax, director of enforcement for the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, said the agency vigorously oversaw the industry for excessive line speed and other problems.

"We have a strong enforcement program" in meatpacking, Mr. Fairfax said, "and a strong compliance assistance program."

The industry itself dismissed the report's conclusions, noting that the number of reported injuries was declining and saying packing companies did their utmost to make their plants safe.

J. Patrick Boyle, president of the American Meat Institute, said the report was "replete with falsehoods and baseless claims."

"In fact," Mr. Boyle said, "there are so many refutable claims and irresponsible accusations contained in this 175-page report that it would take another 175 pages to correct the errors."

The industry also disputed two other conclusions of the report: that packing companies violate human rights by suppressing employees' efforts to organize, often firing those who support a union, and that they flout international agreements by taking advantage of workers' immigration status - in some plants, two-thirds of the workers are illegal immigrants - to subject them to inferior treatment.

"Every country has its horrors, and this industry is one of the horrors in the United States," said Jamie Fellner, director of the United States program for Human Rights Watch, a private watchdog based in New York that most often investigates abuses abroad. "One of the goals of Human Rights Watch is to promote the understanding that workers' rights are human rights. The right to organize and the right to have a safe place to work are human rights no less than the right not to be tortured."

The report, "Blood, Sweat and Fear: Workers' Rights in U.S. Meat and Poultry Plants," focuses on three companies: Tyson Foods for poultry, Smithfield Foods for pork, and Nebraska Beef. Mr. Compa based the report on interviews with workers, company responses, regulatory reports, court testimony going back over the past decade and judicial rulings.

"Nearly every worker interviewed for this report bore physical signs of a serious injury suffered from working in a meat or poultry plant," the report says. "Meat and poultry industry employers set up the workplaces and practices that create these dangers, but they treat the resulting mayhem as a normal, natural part of the production process, not as what it is - repeated violations of international human rights standards."

The report also says that to save themselves money, companies frequently pressure injured employees not to file workers' compensation claims.

Officials of Nebraska Beef did not respond to telephone inquiries seeking comment about the report.

But Gary Mickelson, a spokesman for Tyson, said: "We're disappointed by the report's misleading conclusions, but not surprised given the author's extensive ties to organized labor. Ensuring our team members are treated fairly is an integral part of the way we do business."

Dennis Treacy, Smithfield's vice president for environmental, community and government affairs, faulted the report for dealing at length with what an administrative law judge for the National Labor Relations Board found to be dozens of labor law violations eight years ago against workers trying to unionize the company's pork processing plant in Tar Heel, N.C.

"They make no mention of the current situation of our plants or anybody else's," Mr. Treacy said. "We're proud of our plants."

He said that worker safety was one of Smithfield's highest priorities and that the company was appealing a ruling by the labor relations board that upheld the judge's decision.

That decision found violations, described in the report, that included dismissal of pro-union workers, stationing sheriff's deputies at plant gates to intimidate workers and orchestrating a physical assault on union supporters.

In issuing the report, Human Rights Watch called on federal safety officials to increase enforcement and slow the line speed in packing plants, urged state officials to enforce workers' compensation laws more vigorously, and sought strengthened enforcement against companies' firing and intimidating workers who want to unionize.

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

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