Trump administration policies threaten to worsen the already dangerous conditions for meatpacking workers in the United States, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The Trump administration is weakening oversight of chicken, hog, and cattle producers, and lifting limits on production speeds.
The 100-page report, “‘When We’re Dead and Buried, Our Bones Will Keep Hurting’: Workers’ Rights Under Threat in US Meat and Poultry Plants,” describes alarmingly high rates of serious injury and chronic illness among workers at chicken, hog, and cattle slaughtering and processing plants. Human Rights Watch interviewed workers who described serious job-related injuries or illnesses, and nearly all the interviewed workers identified production speed as the factor that made their job dangerous.
“US meat and poultry workers are put under intense pressure to keep up with production, risking traumatic injury and disabling illness,” said Matt McConnell, research fellow in the business and human rights division and US Program at Human Rights Watch. “By giving companies the green light to accelerate their production, the US government is putting workers’ health on the line.”
Animal slaughtering and processing is inherently difficult work and the hundreds of thousands of women and men who kill, cut, debone, and package American-grown meat suffer some of the highest rates of occupational injury and illness in the country. But the US government is weakening oversight of the industry. This follows decades of failure by the government to put in place domestic workplace safety and health standards that would regulate practices in the industry and improve protections for workers.
Human Rights Watch interviewed 49 current and former workers at chicken, pig, and cattle slaughtering and processing plants in several US states, along with more than 50 community and worker leaders, trade union representatives, attorneys, academic researchers, experts on workers’ safety and health, and former government officials. Human Rights Watch also reviewed extensive secondary sources of information, including reports from nongovernmental organizations and federal investigators, as well as government and academic studies, publicly available government data, and medical literature.
Human Rights Watch interviewed some workers who said they are pressured to work at speeds that place them at risk of serious, potentially life-threatening injury, even at plants that do not operate at the fastest speeds allowed.
“We’ve already gone from the line of exhaustion to the line of pain,” said Ignacio Davalos, a worker at a hog plant in Nebraska. “When we’re dead and buried, our bones will keep hurting.”
Under the Trump administration, the government is expanding the number of poultry companies that can accelerate the speed of slaughter, known as “line speeds,” beyond limits set by an Obama-era rule as part of changes to their inspection systems. The government has also proposed regulations that would bring in new inspection systems and eliminate caps on slaughter line speeds altogether for pork producers, and is considering the same for beef, Food & Water Watch, an advocacy organization, reports.
The government has also further weakened oversight of worker safety at meat and poultry companies, including a decline in enforcement actions by the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the US agency charged with oversight of labor standards. Moreover, the true extent of the harms faced by workers is little understood, as industry reporting on rates of injury and illness lacks transparency. Numerous studies have shown discrepancies between federal data on occupational injury and illness in the industry and the experience of workers.
The US Food Safety and Inspection Service should end the deregulation of slaughter line speeds in the meat and poultry slaughtering and processing industry, Human Rights Watch said. Through OSHA, the US government should also improve workers’ conditions through increased oversight, regulation, and transparency, including putting in place standards to address risk factors for illness and injury, including work speeds, exposure to chemicals, and other ergonomic hazards.
The government should also take steps to ensure that data on workers’ occupational injuries and illnesses is accurate and available for both federal regulatory officials and the public, including revising employer occupational injury and illness reporting forms to collect better information on cumulative trauma injuries. Meat and poultry slaughtering companies and the companies buying their products should also identify, prevent, and remediate human rights abuses in their supply chains.
International human rights law protects everyone’s right to safe and healthy working conditions, as well as the right to the highest attainable standard of health. Under the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, all businesses have a responsibility to respect human rights and ensure that they do not cause or contribute to human rights abuses.
“The US government should not ignore the human impact of its policies,” McConnell said. “It has the power and the obligation to improve workers’ conditions, and should not make them worse.”