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October 2017, Volume 23, Number 4

Meat and Migrants

Tyson Foods in August 2017 agreed to pay $12.6 million to settle suits brought by 3,300 meat workers in Iowa who sued for compensation to cover unpaid donning and doffing time, the time required to put on and take off protective clothing.

Syrian refugees are the newest entries into the meatpacking labor force. As legal workers with limited education and English, resettlement agencies often send refugees to meatpacking plants that usually hire all applicants who can pass physical and drug tests to replace workers who quit. After one refugee from a particular country is hired, networks assure that more refugees learn of job opportunities in the plants. Meatpackers say that their industry is "an excellent starting point for new Americans."

Pilgrim's Pride, the second-largest poultry processor after Tyson, is adopting machines developed by JBS-owned Scott Technology to debone chickens. JBS owns Pilgrim's Pride, which employs 40,000 of the 280,000 workers employed in US chicken processing; Tyson has 95,000 poultry employees.

The injury and illness rate for workers employed in animal slaughtering and processing (NAICS 3116) declined by half, from 10.3 per 100 full-time workers in 2003 to 5.4 in 2015. However, this 2015 incidence rate is higher than for all manufacturing (3.8) and for all private sector workers (3.0).

Non-poultry animal slaughtering and rendering had the highest injury and illness rates, over 7.0, and poultry processing the lowest, 4.3. Among meat, poultry, and fish cutters and trimmers, the most common event or exposure that caused worker injuries were repetitive motions.

On May 12, 2008, almost 400 unauthorized workers were arrested in Postville, Iowa at a kosher slaughterhouse. Most of those arrested were taken to nearby Waterloo, where 270 were sentenced to five months in prison for using false SSNs to get their jobs. The presiding judge, Linda R. Reade, met with prosecutors before the raid, and her husband owned stock in private prison firms that often house arrested unauthorized foreigners, prompting calls to revisit the convictions. Most of those arrested were deported to Guatemala and Mexico after serving their sentences.

Smith, Sean. 2017. How safe are the workers who process our food? Monthly Labor Review. July. https://doi.org/10.21916/mlr.2017.19