Bill would add protections for meat packaging workers, target monopoly industry practices

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A bill introduced in the Senate this week would improve working conditions and whistleblower protection for meat packaging workers, while cracking down on monopoly practices in the industry.

Senator Cory Booker, a Democrat from New Jersey, introduced the Protecting America’s Meatpacking Workers Act on Tuesday. In a press release, he called it “an essential piece in transforming our food system into one rooted in resilience, equity and justice.”

Representative Ro Khanna, a Democrat from California, will present a complementary bill in the House.

Booker’s bill includes several provisions that would make meat packaging workers safer, both during routine operations and in the event of a pandemic. For example, companies could only get a waiver to increase line speeds after going through an inspection showing that the faster speeds would not affect worker safety. The bill would also establish stricter ergonomic standards for workers and strengthen whistleblower protection. And inspectors should verify that employees have prompt and proper access to toilets, without fear of penalty.

Companies would be required to establish a system to publicly report the number of employees who fall ill during the COVID-19 pandemic and any future pandemic, along with information on their race and employment status.

The bill was developed with input from a number of labor groups, including Venceremos, an Arkansas organization focused on the poultry industry. Magaly Licolli, executive director of the group, said the bill reflects many workers’ needs and would establish a basis of standards for the industry that worker groups can build on through organizing efforts. “It would give us a way to pursue something better,” she said.

Workers felt “abandoned” by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) and other regulatory bodies when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, Licolli said. To gain better protection, workers left production lines and organized wildcat strikes and protests outside factories.

At least 269 meat-packing workers have died so far during the COVID-19 pandemic and some 59,000 have fallen ill, a House subcommittee inquiry into the coronavirus crisis found in October. The report criticized companies for “putting profits first” and resisting worker safety measures. He also said OSHA made a “political decision” not to enact rules that would require companies to take specific measures to protect workers from COVID-19.

As companies roll out vaccination programs for workers, Licolli said they are also now removing many of the safety measures put in place earlier in the pandemic, even though the crisis is far from over. “They are working to overcome the pandemic when we know there are still more variations to come,” she said.

Labor shortages also put workers at risk, she said, as they are often asked to work faster and perform jobs they are not trained for, resulting in more injuries.

The proposed legislation would also bring sweeping changes to the meat packaging industry. To remedy the consolidation, this would prevent small meat processing plants receiving certain federal subsidies from being sold to larger packers for a period of 10 years. It would also strengthen the Packers and Stockyards Act, restore mandatory country-of-origin labeling for meat, and extend the requirement to dairy products.

It will be difficult to pass such a sweeping set of reforms, given the immense political power of the meat packaging industry as well as the political polarization in Washington. But while a member of Senator Booker’s staff admitted it would not be an easy fight, he said it was part of a larger movement-building strategy to transform the food system into a better one. workers, the environment and consumers. Thus, even if this bill is not adopted in its entirety, certain parts could be adopted or included in other laws.

The pandemic and its devastating effects on meat packaging workers have exposed a system in desperate need of reform, said Jose Oliva, director of campaigns for the HEAL Food Alliance, a coalition of groups working to change food. food and agricultural systems. Speaking during a webinar on the bill this week, Oliva said many of the issues workers in the industry face – from unsafe working conditions and low wages to lack of healthcare – are not new. “The pandemic did not change the conditions, but rather exposed the existing conditions,” he said.


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