Chair DeLauro Statement at Health and Safety Protections for Meatpacking, Poultry, and Agricultural Workers Hearing

2021-03-02 10:37

House Appropriations Committee Chair and Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee Chair Rosa DeLauro (CT-03), delivered the following remarks at the Subcommittee's Health and Safety Protections for Meatpacking, Poultry, and Agricultural Workers Hearing:

It’s been over a century since Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle exposed the horrifying working conditions in Chicago’s meatpacking industry.  And yet 115 years later the conditions for workers within our nation’s meat and poultry plants as well as farmworkers on the largest corporate farms still bear many concerning resemblances to those depicted by Sinclair. Just as in 1906, workers in these industries toil away for hours, crammed virtually shoulder-to shoulder in dangerous processing plants, repetitively cutting and preparing – at treacherously fast speeds - the food we eat.  Federal data show that America’s meatpacking, poultry, and agriculture industries are among our most dangerous to work in.  A Bureau of Labor Statistics analysis of 2017 data found that agriculture has some of the highest fatal work injury rates of any sector. Meat and poultry workers are injured at rates on average 50% higher than all other workers in the private sector. And a 2016 Government Accountability Office report found illness rates are four times higher in the meatpacking and poultry industry than in other manufacturing industries. Even more alarming, a CDC analysis of data between 1994-2013 found that agriculture has the highest number of deaths of young workers in any industry.

I formerly chaired the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, and during that time I visited many poultry processing plants where I witnessed these conditions first-hand. I have seen how close these workers are to each other, I have seen the slime on the floors, and the horrifying conditions in which these people work. One of our witnesses today, Dulce Castañeda will share the horrible experience she and her father endured, and some of the chilling accounts she has heard from those who are forced to work with blood-soaked masks, as sweat poured down their faces into the meat they were preparing.

Companies like Tyson, Pilgrim’s, Cargill, JBS and Smithfield are some of the worst offenders. According to a Human Rights Watch analysis of federal workplace injury data between 2015 and 2018, Tyson Foods ranks fifth out of all companies, while Pilgrim’s Pride, Cargill, JBS, and Smithfield all ranked within the top 30. This is despite meat and poultry companies having significantly smaller workforces than other companies on the list, such as UPS and Walmart.

I’ve also heard directly from farmworkers about the egregious conditions they are working under and, frankly, the gross negligence of the employers who are forcing them to work under these conditions. Some workers told me their hands bleed from tying plants. Some told me they have to choose between taking their kids to the fields where there are toxins and pesticides or leaving them home alone. They endure all of this while barely being able to make ends meet, working twice as hard to feed their families.

It is unconscionable that the very people we depend on to help deliver a safe and abundant supply of food are themselves subject to unacceptably lax safety standards and dangerous work environments riddled with wholly preventable safety hazards.

Workplace injuries are commonplace in these industries.  Moving machine parts and the tools of the trade, such as knives, saws, hooks, and scissors can cause serious cuts, broken bones, concussions, and amputations. Chemicals used for disinfecting and storage like ammonia and liquid nitrogen can lead to chemical burns, eye and lung injuries, and asphyxiation. And the repetitive, forceful motions that workers perform at breakneck speed can over time cause traumatic and debilitating injuries.

As Upton Sinclair wrote in The Jungle, and I quote, “This is no fairy tale and no joke.”

Unfortunately, with the advent of COVID-19, the conditions facing workers in meat and poultry plants as well as farmworkers has only grown worse.  According to data from the Food & Environment Reporting Network, to date there have been at least 1,782 COVID-19 outbreaks at meatpacking and food processing plants and farms to date. At least almost 88 thousand workers have tested positive for COVID-19 and at least 375 have died. Many meatpacking and agricultural companies have blatantly put profits over people, and few are being held to account. A study of California workers by occupational sector found that food and agriculture workers have experienced the highest “excess mortality” during the COVID-19 pandemic, with a 39% increase in mortality compared to past years. In other words, as Debbie Berkowitz will explain more in her testimony, more workers have died from COVID-19 in meat and poultry plants to date during the pandemic than died from all causes in the industry in the past 15 years.

 Instead of implementing commonsense social distancing strategies to prevent the spread of COVID-19, meat, poultry, and agricultural companies continued to pursue faster production practices, such as accelerated line speeds, to protect their bottom lines.  Stunningly, during the first few months of the pandemic, over a dozen poultry plants, including Tyson, were given permission from the USDA (in the form of waivers from existing regulations) to actually increase their production line speeds, making it impossible to move workers further apart.

Tyson then had the audacity to take out a full page ad in The Washington Post in April 2020, trumpeting their ineffective half-measures for worker health while placing the highest priority on the company’s meat processing productivity. I have a copy of that ad right here to put into the record.

To add insult to injury, some of these companies, while they say they are feeding America, have recently been exporting more of their products to China while American consumers have faced shortages. According to data from the US Department of Agriculture, shipments of American pork to China more than quadrupled since March when the pandemic began.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is the agency responsible for promoting the health and safety of these workers. But throughout most of this pandemic, OSHA has been largely asleep at the wheel, allowing meatpacking and agricultural facilities to become deadly COVID-19 hotspots and failing to hold companies accountable.

Under the leadership of the previous administration, OSHA waited six months to take any action to protect meatpacking and agricultural workers from the spread of COVID-19. Any action they did take amounted to nothing more than a light slap on the wrist to big corporate meat, poultry and agricultural interests. In September, OSHA issued two small financial penalties totaling $29,000 to a Smithfield and a JBS plant. For context, in 2019, JBS’ annual revenue was $51.7 billion and Smithfield’s was $14 billion.

This is all the more reason why urgent action is needed for OSHA to hold these industries accountable and protect meat, poultry, and farm workers from COVID-19.

In Fiscal Year 2022, what we need to do is to prioritize additional resources to OSHA to increase inspections on the ground to protect workers in the most dangerous workplaces. We should place emphasis workplaces where workers are deemed essential and also face a higher risk of infection, such as slaughterhouses, poultry processing plants, and agricultural workplaces.

In the interim, I am working with Chairman Bobby Scott to secure $150 million for worker protection activities at the Department of Labor as part of President Biden’s American Rescue Plan.

Of this amount, $75 million will go to OSHA to support additional enforcement at dangerous workplaces, such as meatpacking plants, poultry processing plants, and farms.

OSHA must issue clear, effective, comprehensive requirements for employers to guarantee that all workers, including meat, poultry, and farm workers, receive the protections from COVID-19 that will keep them safe. That should start with issuing an Emergency Temporary Infectious Disease Standard.

Already, the Biden Administration has taken a strong first step towards protecting our most vulnerable workers from COVID-19 through its Executive Order on Protecting Worker Health and Safety, which calls on OSHA to quickly decide on whether it will issue an Emergency Temporary Standard and to revise its guidance to employers.

From these revisions, it is clear the Biden administration intends to hold employers, including meat, poultry, and agriculture accountable. I was pleased to see stronger language communicating that employers should implement prevention programs to reduce COVID-19 transmission. Specifically, the guidance calls on employers to “increase physical space between workers at the worksite to at least 6 feet. This may require modifying the workspace or slowing production lines.”

The worst offenders such as Tyson, Pilgrim’s, Cargill, JBS, and Smithfield should be on notice—I expect OSHA to hold you accountable to protect your workers from your unsafe conditions. The country, including this subcommittee, will be watching. And we will not overlook these companies’ track records, many of which include guilty pleas related to violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and price fixing.  

Finally, I would like to shine light on an obscure, but harmful rider that has been included in the Labor-H appropriations bill since 1977. The rider prohibits OSHA from conducting standard workplace health and safety inspection and enforcement on small farms. This means a worker could die on the job, and OSHA would be prohibited from conducting an onsite investigation.  

There is no reason to continue to carry this rider at a time when farmworker safety has never been more important. OSHA must be able to protect workers at all farms.

Some may say this rider merely follows the precedent set by agricultural exemptions in other federal labor laws.

The argument is even more pernicious—agricultural exemptions in New Deal worker protection laws were included as compromises to secure the votes of Southern lawmakers who opposed expanding labor rights for Black farmworkers and sharecroppers.

Since becoming Chair of the Labor-H Subcommittee, I have fought to remove this rider, and I will work with my colleagues across the aisle to join me in examining the implications this language has on worker health and safety and racial equity.

We cannot continue unfair, unjust language just because it is what we have done in the past.

117th Congress