January 25, 2005


Workers' Rights in U.S. Meat and Poultry Plants

Human Rights Watch

Copyright 2004 by Human Rights Watch.

All rights reserved.

Printed in the United States of America

ISBN: 1-56432-330-7

Cover photo: 1999 Eugene Richards/Magnum Photos

Cover design by Rafael Jimenez

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The members of the board of directors are Jane Olson, Chair; James F. Hoge, Jr., Vice-Chair; Sid Sheinberg, Vice-Chair; John J. Studzinski, Vice-Chair; Khaled Abou El Fadl, Lisa Anderson, Lloyd Axworthy, David M. Brown, Dorothy Cullman, Edith Everett, Jonathan F. Fanton (chair, 1998-2003), Michael E. Gellert, Richard J. Goldstone, Vartan Gregorian, Stephen L. Kass, Wendy Keys, Robert Kissane, Bruce Klatsky, Joanne Leedom-Ackerman, Josh Mailman, Kati Marton, Lore Harp McGovern, Barry Meyer, Joel Motley, Samuel K. Murumba, Peter Osnos, Kathleen Peratis, Catherine Powell, Sigrid Rausing, Victoria Riskin, Kevin Ryan, Orville Schell, Domna Stanton, Shibley Telhami.

Emeritus board members are Roland Algrant, Robert L. Bernstein (Founding Chair 1978-1997), William D. Carmichael, Adrian W. DeWind, Alice H. Henkin, Bruce Rabb, Gary Sick, and Malcolm B. Smith.


Lance Compa, a consultant to Human Rights Watch, is the principal researcher and author of this report. Human Rights Watch's U.S. program director Jamie Fellner is the principal editor and project manager and participated in field research for the report. Senior researcher Alison Parker and labor rights and trade researcher Carol Pier provided additional research, writing, and editorial assistance. CornellUniversity graduate Lisa Schapira provided research assistance, and Human Rights Watch program associates Paul Jacobs and Keramet Reiter provided staff support throughout the project. Keramet Reiter prepared the report for publication.

Joseph Saunders, deputy director in the Program Department, and James Ross, senior legal advisor, provided thorough program, policy, and legal reviews.

Human Rights Watch thanks the many representatives of community, immigrants' rights, religious, and trade union organizations in Nebraska, Arkansas, and North Carolina who facilitated field research for the meat and poultry case studies in this report. University-based researchers in those states joined these advocates in sharing their knowledge, experience, and insights to strengthen the report. Equal thanks go to scholars and analysts in other universities and in policy/research organizations who provided extensive information for the report.

Human Rights Watch also thanks human resources vice president Ken Kimbro of Tyson Foods, Inc. and corporate communications vice president Jerry Hostetter of Smithfield Foods, Inc. for providing information and perspective from their companies (and, in the case of Tyson Foods, Mr. Kimbro for arranging a lengthy telephone interview with other senior Tyson managers). Human Rights Watch also thanks officials from relevant labor, job safety, immigration, and other federal and state agencies who provided important information on matters covered in this report.

Finally, Human Rights Watch thanks the many meat and poultry industry workers who welcomed researchers into their homes in Omaha, Nebraska, Northwest Arkansas, and eastern North Carolina for the interviews that are the heart of this report. Muchas gracias.

Human Rights Watch thanks Peter B. Lewis for his contributions to the U.S. Program that made this report possible.We also appreciate the support from the Nathan Cummings Foundation for public education and advocacy about the human rights violations described in this report.

Table of Contents

I. Summary
Findings and Recommendations
Workplace Health and Safety and Workers' Compensation
Freedom of Association
Protection of Rights of Immigrant Workers
Scope and Methodology of the Report
II. Historical Background
Gaining Ground
Sliding Back
From Little Chicken to Big Chicken
Meat and Chicken Combined
Bringing in the Third World
III. International Law: Workers' Human Rights, Government Obligations, and Corporate Responsibility
Human Rights Instruments and U.S. Obligations
ILO Norms, the 1998 Core Labor Standards Declaration, and U.S. Obligations
U.S. Commitments on Labor Rights and Trade
Corporations and Human Rights
IV. Worker Health and Safety in the Meat and Poultry Industry
International Human Rights Standards and U.S. Law..
Meat and Poultry Industry Dangers
Part of the Operating System..
Why Is It So Dangerous?
Line Speed
Close-Quarters Cutting
Heavy Lifting
Sullied Work Conditions
Long Hours
Inadequate Training and Equipment
The Struggle over an Ergonomics Standard
Underreporting of Injuries
Government Records and Industry Manipulation of Injury Reports
V. Workers' Compensation in the Meat and Poultry Industry
International Human Rights Standards and U.S. Law..
Failures of the Workers' Compensation System in the Meat and Poultry Industry
The Role of On-Site Medical Clinics
Workers' Compensation and Short-Term Disability (STD)
Fear of Job Loss
Company-Selected Doctors
VI. Freedom of Association in the Meat and Poultry Industry
International Human Rights Standards and U.S. Law..
Workers' Freedom of Association in the Poultry Industry
An Insight into Employers' View of Workers' Association
Workers' Freedom of Association in Tyson Meat Plants
Jefferson, Wisconsin
Pasco, Washington
Worker Organizing at Nebraska Beef
Worker Organizing at Smithfield Foods
An Election in 1997 and its Aftermath
A Supervisor Speaks Out
Pressure Continues
Smithfield's Use of Police
The 1997 Election
Now: Special Police Status
VII. Immigrant Workers in the Meat and Poultry Industry101
International Human Rights Standards and U.S. Law.. 101
Increasing Immigration in Meat and Poultry Plants105
Effects on Workers' Rights110
Immigrant Workers and Organizing at Nebraska Beef112
Immigrant Workers and Organizing at Smithfield Foods114
Fear among Legal Workers115
VIII. The Impact of Hoffman Plastic on Workers' Rights118
International Human Rights Rulings124
IX. Recommendations126
To the Administration126
To Congress127
To the Administration and Congress129
To State Governments129
To the Meat and Poultry Companies131
Appendix A: The Production Process in Meat and Poultry Plants133
Meat Plants133
Poultry Plants140
Appendix B: Human Rights Standards on Workers' Health and Safety, Workers' Compensation146
Universal Declaration of Human Rights146
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights147
International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights147
ILO Convention No. 121: Employment Injury Benefits Convention (1964)148
ILO Convention No. 130: Medical Care and Sickness Benefits (1969)149
ILO Convention No. 155: Occupational Safety and Health Convention (1981)150
ILO Protocol 155 Protocol to the Occupational Safety and Health Convention (2002)150
ILO Convention No. 161: Occupational Health Services (1985)150
United States Commitments in North American Agreement on Labor Cooperation151
Appendix C: Human Rights Standards on Freedom of Association153
Universal Declaration of Human Rights153
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights153
International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights153
ILO Convention No. 87: Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise (1948)154
ILO Convention No. 98: Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining (1949)154
United States Commitments in North American Agreement on Labor Cooperation155
Appendix D: Human Rights Standards on Migrant Workers156
International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (1990)156
ILO Convention No. 97: Migration for Employment Convention (1949)157
Annex I158
ILO Convention No. 143 Migrant Workers Convention (1975)159
Inter-American Court of Human Rights160
ILO Committee on Freedom of Association161
United States Commitments in North American Agreement on Labor Cooperation161
Appendix E: Tyson Trial Transcript163
Appendix F: Injury Interviews and Data167
Analysis of Injuries and Workers' Compensation from Interviews167
Appendix G: Nebraska's Meatpacking Workers Bill of Rights170
Appendix H: Nebraska Non-English Speaking Workers Protection Act172