January 25, 2005

Appendix G: Nebraska's Meatpacking Workers Bill of Rights

Nebraska's government authorities have made certain efforts to improve conditions for meatpacking workers in the state. One innovative step was the Nebraska Meatpacking Industry Workers Bill of Rights issued in June 2000 by Governor Michael Johanns of a The governor responded favorably to advocacy by worker and community labor rights supporters for a more forceful state government stance on the crisis of workers' rights in the meatpacking industry.[357] "I literally sat down with a legal pad and wrote it out myself," the governor proclaimed, "and then I posted it in meatpacking plants all across the state. Do you know why? Because it's the fair thing to do."[358]

Nebraska's meatpacking workers bill of rights asserts:

1) the right to organize, 2) the right to a safe workplace, 3) the right to adequate facilities and the opportunity to utilize them, 4) the right to adequate equipment, 5) the right to complete information, 6) the right to understand information provided, 7) the right to existing state and federal benefits and rights, 8) the right to be free from discrimination, 9) the right to continuing training including supervisor training, 10) the right to compensation for work performed, and 11) the right to seek state help. [359]

The Nebraska rights declaration is a voluntary instrument and its reach, while important, has been modest. Named by the governor to coordinate the bill of rights' implementation, Jose Santos of the state labor department told Human Rights Watch, "it's a long process and we still have a long way to go." In his annual report for 2002, Santos said he visited meatpacking plants at a dozen locations around the state, and noted that "employees expressed concerns over the chain-line speed, and the safety hazards that come with that speed. When line speeds are increased to meet high production demands, workers are forced to overexert, and are place under stressful conditions that increase the potential to cause serious injuries." [360] Why not put this line speed info in the safety section above re line speed?

The first recommendation of Santos' report was "Enforce labor laws more effectively and improve access to the justice system." Santos said most progress has come in terms of communication among meatpacking employers, workers and community advocates especially in the area of education. "Several employers are supporting ESL [English as a second language] programs for employees," he said.

"We can only do so much," Santos cautioned. "So many of the problems and issues are related to workers' immigration status, and that takes federal action because it's a federal responsibility." [361]

Nebraska has taken a portion of the bill of rights and elevated it to a statutory level. In 2003, the state legislature adopted the Non-English-Speaking Workers Protection Act.[362] The new law requires employers with significant numbers of immigrant workers not fluent in English to ensure that bilingual speakers are available to employees inside the workplace and to provide statements written in the employees' own language of terms and conditions of employment, including potential health and safety risks. The Act also makes permanent the post of coordinator of implementation of the bill of rights, with duties defined as "to inspect and review the practices and procedures of meatpacking operations in the State of Nebraska as they relate to the provisions of the Governor's Nebraska Meatpacking Industry Workers Bill of Rights."

[357] See David Hendee, "Work Rights for Packers Formalized; Johanns Signs Voluntary Standards for Meat Plants," Omaha World-Herald, June 29, 2000, p. 13.

[358] See Joe Dejka, "OTOC grills Johanns and Dean: the candidates for governor are pressed about meatpacking workers' right to organize," Omaha World-Herald, October 21, 2002, p. 3b.

[359] The complete text of the declaration is contained in Appendix B.

[360] See Jose A. Santos, Meatpacking Industry Worker Rights Coordinator, Worker's Bill of Rights Report, December 1, 2002, p. 3.

[361] Human Rights Watch telephone interview, December 1, 2003.

[362] The text of the Act is contained in Appendix H.