This Labor Day, our thanks and deep appreciation are extended to all workers deemed ‘essential’ who have been on the job throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
Slaughterhouse workers especially deserve our support as we recognize the connections between protecting the welfare of food chain workers and the work we do in protecting Iowa’s water quality, rural communities, and diverse ecosystems. Just as we have joined others around the state in calling for a moratorium on CAFOs, we are advocating for better working conditions, better wages, and the opportunity to unionize for the employees of Iowa’s meat processing facilities.
Slaughterhouses have been hot spots of COVID-19 outbreaks. When workers became ill with COVID-19, some of the plants closed to sanitize their facilities and quarantine those who were exposed. As was made evident, there were no real alternatives to handling the numbers of animals that were ready for slaughter. It didn’t take long for the President, using the Defense Production Act, to declare the slaughterhouses as essential services, ordering them to remain open. Although some employee protections have since been put in place, there were limits to what could be done. As Smithfield’s CEO Kenneth Sullivan noted in late July, “Spread out? Where?”
Many of the employees of Iowa’s meat processing facilities are Black, Latinx, and Asian. Many are recent immigrants who do not speak English. Each employee uses the income from these jobs to support themselves and their families. Despite the hazardous working conditions, they have a reasonable expectation of coming home healthy after their shift. Their work is often invisible and underappreciated. However, almost everyone who eats pork, beef, chicken, or turkey has eaten products from these large slaughterhouses.
The meat processing plants were dangerous places to work even before the pandemic. The pandemic adds an extra layer of danger to plant employees. During a regular work day, the employees toil in extreme temperatures — some in very hot environments, some in very chilly rooms. The stench can be overwhelming. Many of the workers labor shoulder to shoulder, unable to maintain a social distance from each other, all the while wielding knives, grinders, and other dangerous equipment. It is repetitive work that results in injuries.
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Making matters worse are the limited health and safety inspections by our government agencies. So no one is providing day-to-day oversight to ensure the safety of our food and the health and safety of the workers who process it.
This modern system of food production that values efficiencies foremost also exploits the land with little regard for the environmental damages. It exploits farmers and rural communities by paying too little for the crops and externalizing the real costs of growing the feed that goes to animals in CAFOs. Consumers are left in the dark as to the true costs of food.
Labor Day is a time to acknowledge the ways that our economic system exploits people. As we enjoy a picnic or share a meal with friends and family, let’s pledge to end exploitation and injustices of our food system.
Pam Mackey-Taylor of Marion is director of the Iowa Chapter of the Sierra Club.