Our food system must protect the physical and financial health of the workers who ensure we have food on our tables.
For years, workers have endured grueling conditions inside poultry processing plants: debilitating injuries, low wages and scant benefits, undignified and arduous conditions. To this already unacceptable list we must now add new and terrible challenges: exposure to high risk of infection and death from COVID-19.
The underlying conditions in the plants exacerbate the risks: close proximity on the line, cold and humidity, infrequent access to bathroom breaks. In addition, most do not have access to paid sick time or adequate healthcare, and after years earning low wages, they have little reserves to enable them to leave steady employment. They have to work, no matter the risks.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Employers can step up to establish vital and cost-effective measures that will protect hundreds of thousands of workers in poultry processing plants. As we receive the heartbreaking news of processing plant workers dying due to COVID-19, we put out the call for responsibility and swift action from the industry.
Workers at risk, and fighting back
Simply put: Workers are rightly afraid to be at work now. And they face an impossible choice: between losing their income, or risking their lives.
Gregoria Rivas, a member of the Western North Carolina Workers’ Center, decided to leave her job at a Case Farms poultry plant because she did not feel safe:
“I went many times to the infirmary [to ask] for masks which were denied to me during my work shift," she said. "The distance of the employees, it was not more than two steps. Lunch time and breaks, it was [all done] in the same way [as before], they have changed nothing about worker health protection and sanitation.” (translated from an original statement in Spanish)
This is nothing new–but it is more deadly now.
For years, Oxfam has been working with a broad coalition that advocates for increased safety protections and better lives for poultry workers. Corporations can now move a lot faster than waiting for government to pass guidelines or approve aid packages.
What poultry workers need to survive this crisis
Together with our allies, we are calling on the poultry industry to adopt key measures that will ensure that workers’ well-being and financial stability is prioritized.
Paid leave: Instead of claiming exemption from the provisions of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act due to their size, poultry companies should immediately provide access to at least comparable paid leave for their workers. It is essential for worker safety and for the containment of the coronavirus that workers are able to stay home for all the reasons outlined in the FFCR act.
Health and safety measures: Companies should provide all poultry workers with the best available personal protection equipment to prevent exposure to COVID-19. Medically recommended physical distance protocols should be in place everywhere it is possible and wherever workers stand less than 6-feet apart, physical barriers (such as plexiglass) must be put in place to protect from exposure. No worker should be required to stay at work if they fall within the reasons outlined above for receiving paid leave; including workers who were exposed to a sick individual and must self-quarantine. When a worker tests positive for COVID-19 swift actions and transparent communications must be implemented to notify all workers that might have been exposed and to isolate and sanitize all parts of the plant that could be contaminated.
Premium pay: In addition to providing all the necessary personal protection equipment companies should also provide premium pay for workers doing this essential job. The hard work performed by the women and men who process our nation’s poultry is even more crucial during this unprecedented health emergency. Workers should be recognized for their contributions with at least time-and-a-half pay for hours worked until the crisis is over.
Listen to workers: One of the most important steps that companies can take is to listen to workers. Proper communication and engagement have always been the best path for identifying problems and implementing solutions to improve safety and production. In these troubling times, across all frontline industries, we look at essential workers as the heroes of this crisis; we should certainly listen to them as such.
If workers continue to get sick, they and their families won’t be the only ones who suffer. Our food supply chains will be at risk. This is not the time for companies to wait for a dysfunctional government to issue guidelines or to provide no-strings corporate bailouts before they act to protect workers and help contain the COVID-19 pandemic.
By following the recommendations of our coalition, industry leaders can make a big a difference in containing this disease starting today. We all need to value and protect the workers that keep our food system going, during times of crisis and at all other moments too.
Here are links to additional information from our allies about steps that poultry companies and governmental officials can take to protect workers: