“Blood Sweat and Fear” – Meat and Poultry Plants (Human Rights Watch, 2005)

The following is the executive summary of a 185 page report issued by the Human Rights Watch in January 2005. The report is entitled Blood, Sweat, and Fear: Workers’ Rights in U.S. Meat and Poultry Plants. (The Summary is also available in Spanish: Sangre, sudor y miedo: Derechos de los trabajadores en las plantas cárnicas y avícolas de Estados Unidos.
This is probably the most referenced report on working conditions of immigrant workers in the huge meat processing industry. It is unfortunately light on injury and fatality data, but is worth looking at as it puts the problem of occupational health and safety of these workers into a broad, international context.
The Executive Summary:
Workers in American beef, pork, and poultry slaughtering and processing plants perform dangerous jobs in difficult conditions. Dispatching the nonstop tide of animals and birds arriving on plant kill floors and live hang areas is itself hazardous and exhausting labor.1 After slaughter, the carcasses hurl along evisceration and disassembly lines as workers hurriedly saw and cut them at unprecedented volume and pace.
What once were hundreds of head processed per day are now thousands; what were thousands are now tens of thousands per day. One worker described the reality of the line in her foreman’s order: “Speed, Ruth, work for speed! One cut! One cut! One cut for the skin; one cut for the meat. Get those pieces through!” Said another: “People can’t take it, always harder, harder, harder! [mas duro, mas duro, mas duro!].”
Constant fear and risk is another feature of meat and poultry labor. Meatpacking work has extraordinarily high rates of injury. Workers injured on the job may then face dismissal. Workers risk losing their jobs when they exercise their rights to organize and bargain collectively in an attempt to improve working conditions. And immigrant workers—an increasing percentage of the workforce in the industry—are particularly at risk. Language difficulties often prevent them from being aware of their rights under the law and of specific hazards in their work. Immigrant workers who are undocumented, as many are, risk deportation if they seek to organize and to improve conditions.

Meat and poultry industry companies do not promise rose-garden workplaces, nor should it be expected of them. Turning an eight hundred pound animal or even a five pound chicken into tenders for the supermarket checkout or fast food restaurant counter is by its nature demanding physical labor in bloody, greasy surroundings. But workers in this industry face more than hard work in tough settings. They contend with conditions, vulnerabilities, and abuses which violate human rights.
Employers put workers at predictable risk of serious physical injury even though the means to avoid such injury are known and feasible. They frustrate workers’ efforts to obtain compensation for workplace injuries when they occur. They crush workers’ self-organizing efforts and rights of association. They exploit the perceived vulnerability of a predominantly immigrant labor force in many of their work sites.2 These are not occasional lapses by employers paying insufficient attention to modern human resources management policies. These are systematic human rights violations embedded in meat and poultry industry employment.
Any single meatpacking or poultry processing company which by itself sought to respect the rights of its workers—and hence incurred additional costs—would face undercutting price competition from other businesses that did not. What is required are large scale changes to health and safety and workers’ compensation regulations and practices and greater protection of workers’ right to organize, in particular that of immigrant workers, throughout the meat and poultry industry.
To date, the industry as such has shown little inclination to work collectively to increase respect for workers’ rights, either through trade association standards or through joint support for legislative safeguards. But an equal or greater responsibility for halting workers’ rights violations in the meat and poultry industry lies with government at both federal and state levels. Only governmental power can set a uniform floor of strengthened industry-wide rules for workplace health and safety and for workers’ compensation benefits. Only government agencies can effectively enforce workers’ organizing rights and ensure effective and timely recourse and remedies for workers whose rights are violated. Only government agencies can provide the strong legal enforcement required to deter employers from violating workers’ rights. Finally, only government policy can change the vulnerable status of the hundreds of thousands of immigrant workers in the meat and poultry industry.
Unfortunately, as this report shows, the United States is failing on all these counts. Health and safety laws and regulations fail to address critical hazards in the meat and poultry industry. Laws and agencies that are supposed to protect workers’ freedom of association are instead manipulated by employers to frustrate worker organizing. Federal laws and policies on immigrant workers are a mass of contradictions and incentives to violate their rights. In sum, the United States is failing to meet its obligations under international human rights standards to protect the human rights of meat and poultry industry workers.
Findings and Recommendations
Key findings of this report arise in three main areas of meatpacking and poultry workers’ rights: Workplace Health and Safety and Workers’ Compensation.

  • Many workers suffer severe, life-threatening and sometimes life-ending injuries that are predictable and preventable.
  • Many workers cannot get the compensation for workplace injuries to which they are entitled.
  • Government laws, regulations, policies and enforcement fail to sufficiently protect meat and poultry workers’ health and safety at work and their right to compensation when they are hurt.

Freedom of Association

  • Many workers who try to form trade unions and bargain collectively are spied on, harassed, pressured, threatened, suspended, fired, deported or otherwise victimized for their exercise of the right to freedom of association.
  • Labor laws that are supposed to protect workers’ freedom of association have fundamental gaps, and government agencies fail to enforce effectively those laws that do purport to protect workers’ rights.
    Protection of Rights of Immigrant Workers.

  • The massive influx of immigrant workers into meat and poultry industry plants around the country means that a growing number of workers are unaware of their workplace rights.
  • Because many of the workers are undocumented or have family members who are undocumented, fear of drawing attention to their immigration status prevents workers from seeking protection for their rights as workers from government authorities.
  • Meat and poultry industry employers take advantage of these fears to keep workers in abusive conditions that violate basic human rights and labor rights.
  • U.S. immigration and labor law and policy fail to respect and ensure the rights guaranteed to all non-citizen workers, irrespective of their immigration status, by international human rights law.

Detailed recommendations to employers and to federal and state governmental authorities are contained in Chapter IX. The findings of this report support the following broadly-framed recommendations:

  • On health and safety, new federal and state laws and regulations are needed to reduce line speed in meat and poultry plants to reasonable levels that do not create a constant, foreseeable and preventable risk of injury. Further legislative and regulatory reform should establish new ergonomics standards reducing risk of musculoskeletal injury due to repetitive physical stress. Government health and safety authorities must devise stricter injury reporting requirements and thoroughly audit such reports to end the chronic underreporting of injuries in this industry. Health and safety authorities must also apply stronger enforcement measures, including use of criminal referrals to the Justice Department in cases of willful repeated violations, to enhance safety conditions in the industry.
  • In state-based workers’ compensation programs, states must develop stronger laws and regulations to halt widespread underreporting of injuries to avoid claims by injured workers. States must also enforce anti-retaliation laws, which are meant to prohibit the firing of employees who file workers’ compensation claims, but are widely recognized as un-enforced and ineffective. Immigrant workers in particular must be informed of their rights under workers’ compensation laws and assured in their ability to file claims without fear of reprisal.
  • On freedom of association, employers must honor workers’ right to organize and bargain collectively and halt aggressive, intimidating campaigns taking advantage of loopholes, weaknesses, and delays in the U.S. labor law system that allow for the violation of those rights. Governmental authorities must enforce more effectively existing labor laws protecting workers’ organizing rights. Moreover, federal labor law reform is needed to bring the United States into compliance with international standards on workers’ freedom of association. Such reform should start with enactment of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which would allow workers to join unions and bargain collectively free of employer threats and intimidation and create stronger remedies for violations of workers’ rights.
  • For immigrant workers, new laws and policies are needed to ensure that their basic human rights, including rights as workers, are respected whatever their immigration status. Law and policy must also provide the same workplace protections as those applied to non-immigrants, including coverage under fair labor standards and other labor laws, access to the labor law enforcement system, and remedies when their rights are violated.

Scope and Methodology of the Report
This report covers workers’ rights in the U.S. meat and poultry industry in three broad areas of human rights concern: worker health and safety and related rights to compensation for workplace injuries, freedom of association, and the status of immigrant workers. It follows Unfair Advantage: Workers’ Freedom of Association in the United States under International Human Rights Standards, a Human Rights Watch report published in 2000.4 Based on an examination of a dozen industrial and service sectors of the U.S. economy in as many states, Unfair Advantage documented widespread violations of workers’ organizing rights and severe deficiencies in the content of U.S. labor law and in the labor law enforcement system.
In Blood, Sweat, and Fear we focus on workers’ rights violations in the beef, pork, and poultry slaughtering and processing industry. The report concentrates on workplace health and safety, workers’ compensation, workers’ organizing rights, and the status of immigrant workers because our research uncovered systemic violations in these areas.
The report draws from research, interviews, and visits in 2003 and 2004 to three geographic centers of the industry: Omaha, Nebraska for beef; Tar Heel, North Carolina for pork; and Northwest Arkansas for poultry. It also draws from research undertaken during 1999-2000 for Unfair Advantage. Although major areas of beef, pork, and poultry production exist in other parts of the United States, these three locations were selected for the geographic diversity among them and their reflection of each of the three major product segments in the industry.
Human Rights Watch researchers conducted in-person interviews with dozens of meat and poultry workers and telephone interviews with several others. Most current employees did not want to be identified, fearing retaliation by their employer if their names appeared in the report. Workers who agreed to the use of their names are identified in the report. The report also draws on interviews with community organization and union representatives, workers’ compensation attorneys, ergonomics experts, government officials, and other professionals with relevant experience and expertise.
Human Rights Watch also conducted a lengthy telephone interview with representatives of Tyson Foods at company headquarters in Springdale, Arkansas. Officials of Smithfield Foods chose to respond to inquiries in writing rather than in an oral interview. Human Rights Watch appreciates these companies’ willingness to respond to questions and to affirmatively state their policies and views. Officials of Nebraska Beef did not respond to telephoned, mailed, and e-mailed requests for an interview.
Finally, Human Rights Watch researchers examined legal pleadings, rulings, and transcripts of proceedings; injury reports, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and workers’ compensation records, company memoranda, government and academic studies, books on the meat and poultry industry and on working conditions in the industry, and relevant newspaper and magazine articles.