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I. 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:3

Workplace Health and Safety and Workers’ Compensation

o Many workers suffer severe, life-threatening and sometimes life-ending injuries that are predictable and preventable.

o Many workers cannot get the compensation for workplace injuries to which they are entitled.

o 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

o 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.

o 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

o 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.

o 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.

o Meat and poultry industry employers take advantage of these fears to keep workers in abusive conditions that violate basic human rights and labor rights.

o 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. 

Omaha, Nebraska and Nebraska Beef

From its founding as a territory in 1854 until the late twentieth century, Nebraska was mostly populated by white Americans of European origin, joined by a minority of African-Americans. Omaha was always an important meatpacking center because of its proximity to livestock and feedlots. Immigrant workers from southern and eastern Europe made up most of the meatpacking labor force in the early twentieth century. In the 1940s and 50s, the children of these immigrants, along with African-American coworkers in key roles, formed strong local unions of the United Packinghouse Workers. As happened in the industry generally, in the 1980s and 1990s, many meatpacking businesses closed plants that provided with good wages and benefits. Following closures, company owners often relocated plants to rural areas. In Omaha, some companies later reopened closed factories employing low wage, new immigrant workforces without trade union representation.

Immigrants currently constitute more than 10 percent of Nebraska’s population and 25 to 30 percent of the population in Omaha and urban areas. Most of the immigrants come from Mexico and Central America, but many have also come from Laos, Vietnam, Sudan, Somalia, and Iraq. Tens of thousands of these immigrants work in meatpacking plants. Others work in hotels and restaurants, in construction and roofing, and other fields.

In 1995, investors purchased an abandoned, decaying, half-century-old meatpacking plant, one of many that dot the mixed-use neighborhood of South Omaha. The renovated plant became the home of Nebraska Beef Ltd., the seventh-largest beef packing company in the United States. Today, the smell of thousands of live cattle awaiting slaughter, and the stench of blood and offal from dead cattle, permeates the low-rise apartment buildings, modest homes, and small commercial shops in the area.

Nebraska Beef Ltd. is a privately-held firm which does not file annual reports with the U.S. federal Securities and Exchange Commission. Nebraska Beef was founded in 1995 by a group of investors led by company president William Hughes in alliance with Day Lee Inc., the U.S. arm of Nippon Ham of Japan. Eighteen investment groups and individuals invested more than $12 million in the new enterprise. Hughes had earlier been executive vice president of another Omaha beef processing plant called BeefAmerica, which was closed in October 1993, eliminating nine hundred jobs. When it opened, Nebraska Beef got $7.5 million in state tax credits under Nebraska’s “Quality Jobs” initiative granting such credits to firms that create new jobs.

Nebraska Beef has annual sales of more than $800 million and capacity for slaughtering three thousand head of beef per day. The company employs 1,100 workers, none of whom are union-represented.5

Tar Heel, North Carolina and Smithfield Foods

Well into the twentieth century North Carolina was a state dominated by two main industries, textile manufacturing and agriculture. The population and labor force were almost entirely Anglo-American and African-American. In the last half of the twentieth century, the state’s economy diversified in important ways. High-tech development clustered around universities in the Research Triangle of the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area. Multinational electrical, auto, and machinery producers opened new factories while many of the textile mills closed. Raising chickens and hogs supplanted traditional farming in many areas as companies such as Tyson Foods, Perdue, and Smithfield Foods opened slaughtering and processing facilities around the state. North Carolina farmers now raise $1.3 billion worth of chickens and $1.4 billion worth of hogs per year.6

Like many states of the South and Midwest that twenty years ago had a negligible immigrant population, North Carolina has seen dramatic increases in foreign workers. About half a million of North Carolina’s eight-and-a-half million residents are immigrants, but the state had the single highest rate of immigrant population increase among all fifty states during the 1990-2000 decade: a 274 percent increase from 115,000 to 430,000 in 2000 (and more than 500,000 today). Arkansas was fourth with a 196 percent increase.7 When Smithfield opened its Tar Heel plant in 1993, fewer than 10 percent of the hourly employees were immigrants. Today an estimated half of the plant’s workers are Hispanic immigrants. African-Americans make up about 40 percent of the workforce.8

Dominating the flat, sparsely populated terrain around it, where tobacco and sweet potato farms are giving way to hog growing, Smithfield Foods' incongruously immense hog-processing plant draws some five thousand workers each day from the eastern half of the state. Smithfield is the largest pork producer in the United States. Its Tar Heel plant is the largest hog-killing facility in the country. Workers there slaughter, cut, pack, and ship more than twenty-five thousand hogs a day.

Headquartered in Smithfield, Virginia and incorporated there, Smithfield Foods is the largest hog producer and pork processor in the world, with $7 billion in annual sales under its own name and the names of acquired companies including John Morrell & Co. and Patrick Cudahy, Inc. In 2002 Smithfield diversified into beef production, acquiring Packerland Holdings, Inc. and Moyer Packing Co.

Smithfield Foods employs more than thirty thousand workers in the United States in twelve plants in ten states. Approximately seventeen thousand employees in U.S. locations are not union-represented.

Smithfield plants in the Southeast and Midwest slaughter and process eighty thousand hogs per day. Following the acquisitions of Packerland Holdings, Inc. and Moyer Packing Co., Smithfield became the fifth largest fresh beef producer in the United States; five beef slaughtering plants process eight thousand cattle per day.

Smithfield Foods is a multinational corporation with operations in Canada, Mexico, China and several European countries and has more than $1 billion in international sales.9

Northwest Arkansas Poultry and Tyson Foods

Tucked between the Ozark National Forest and the borders with Oklahoma and Missouri, the northwest corner of Arkansas is the center of the poultry industry in Arkansas, the state’s largest private sector employer. The beautiful green hills and valleys belie the environmental degradation of area watersheds polluted by a tsunami of waste from one billion defecating chickens raised and slaughtered each year in Arkansas.10

Dozens of poultry processing plants are spread among the shopping centers, modest homes and residential apartments of Bentonville, Rogers, Springdale, Fayetteville, Forth Smith and other towns off Interstate I-540 in Northwest Arkansas. The smell of dead chickens permeates the atmosphere. Poultry plants are mostly nondescript, windowless facilities set back from the grid of roads and highways in the area.

In the past decade, immigrant workers from Mexico and Central America have supplanted many rural white and African-American workers in Northwest Arkansas poultry plants, a demographic phenomenon characterizing the poultry industry nationwide.11 Between 1990 and 2000, the foreign-born population of the two largest counties in the area increased more than 600 percent. Nearly all the increase was related to poultry industry employment. In Rogers and Springdale, centers of the poultry processing industry in the area, immigrants are more than 20 percent of the population.12

Headquartered in Springdale, Arkansas and incorporated in Delaware, Tyson Foods is the biggest meat and poultry company in the world with $25 billion in annual sales in chicken, beef, pork, prepared foods and related products. In the past fifteen years, Tyson acquired Holly Farms and Hudson Foods, two of the country’s largest poultry companies after Tyson. In 2001 Tyson acquired IBP, Inc., the country’s then-biggest beef producer. Tyson Foods employs 120,000 workers in more than 120 plants and distribution centers in twenty-seven states. Approximately 30,000 employees in thirty-three locations are union-represented.

Tyson runs sixty poultry processing plants engaged in slaughtering, dressing, cutting, packaging, de-boning and further processing fifty million chickens per week. Tyson’s fourteen beef production facilities slaughter, disassemble, and process 250,000 head of cattle per week. Eight pork production facilities slaughter and process 400,000 head per week. In the company’s prepared foods operations, Tyson produces fifty million pounds per week of pizza toppings, processed meats, appetizers, hors d’oeuvres, desserts, ethnic foods, soups, sauces, side dishes, and pizza crusts, flour and corn tortilla products and specialty pasta and meat dishes.

At its website, Tyson proclaims: “Today, Tyson is the largest provider of protein products on the planet, the world leader in producing and marketing beef, pork, and chicken. . . . We are committed to producing the high-quality food products America has come to depend upon, while we recognize our responsibility to be good corporate citizens in the communities in which we work, live, and play.”13

Tyson Foods is a multinational corporation with operations in Russia, China, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, India, Indonesia, Japan, the Philippines, Spain, Britain, Venezuela and Holland.14


[1] See Appendix A for a detailed description of work inside meat and poultry plants.

[2] See text accompanying footnote 286 for a description of the variety of legal statuses held by non-citizen workers in the United States, some of whom actually have permission to work in the United States but may still remain vulnerable to employer coercion for a variety of reasons.

[3] It was obviously not possible for Human Rights Watch to interview workers and research working conditions in all of the hundreds of factories in the U.S. meat and poultry industry. While still being generally characteristic of the industry, our specific findings may not apply to all workplaces at all times.

[4] The report is available on Human Rights Watch website at Unfair Advantage was republished by Cornell University Press in 2004 with a new introduction and conclusion; information available online at:, accessed on November 16, 2004.

[5] See “Nebraska Beef,” summary information, Omaha World-Herald, March 23, 2003, p. 23B; John Taylor, “Nebraska Beef Investor Wants Answers,” Omaha World-Herald, December 16, 2000, p. Business 20; John Taylor, “Operating in Obscurity, Nebraska Beef Shrouds Identity of Owners,” Omaha World-Herald, December 10, 2000, p. Business 1 (noting that “the identities of the current owners are shrouded in mystery”); John Taylor, “Surprises Mark Plant’s First Year: Beef Firm Spars with Neighbors,” Omaha World-Herald, August 11, 1996, p. Business 1.

[6] See Kristin Collins, “What is the future of the family farm?” Raleigh News & Observer, January 25, 2004, p. A21.

[7] See Sandra Yin, “Home and Away,” American Demographics, March 1, 2004, p. 2.

[8] These proportions are estimates by researchers from the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which maintains an organizing office near the Tar Heel plant and carefully tracks employee demographics. See also Greg Barnes, “Bladen links up with hogs’ fortunes,” Fayetteville Observer, December 18, 2003, p.1.

[9] See Smithfield Foods Annual 10K Report for fiscal year ending April 27, 2003, U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, file no. 1-15321.

[10] According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1.18 billion chickens were slaughtered in Arkansas in 2002. See Tom Darin Liskey, “Pilgrim’s Pride Feathers Its Arkansas Nest,” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, November 16, 2003, p. 73. On what becomes of the chicken waste, see M. Nelson, K. White, and T. Soerens, “Illinois River Phosphorus Sampling Results and Mass Balance Computation,” in Proceedings of Arkansas Water Resources Center Annual Research Conference, Arkansas Water Resources Center, Fayetteville, Arkansas (2000); T. Soerens, E. Fite, and J. Hipp, “Water Quality in the Illinois River: Conflict and Cooperation Between Oklahoma and Arkansas,” Diffuse Pollution Conference Paper (2003).  The Illinois River runs through northwest Arkansas into Oklahoma.

[11] See Jesse Katz, “1,000 Miles of Hope, Heartache: Aspiring Factory Workers Abandon Desperate Lives to Enter Human Pipeline from Mexican Border to Poultry Jobs in Middle America,” Los Angeles Times, November 10, 1996, p. 1.

[12] See Matthew Walker, “Poultry, Construction Jobs Draw Hispanics,” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, November 16, 2003, p. 71.

[13] Available online at:, accessed on November 16, 2004.

[14] See Tyson Foods Annual 10K Report for fiscal year ending September 27, 2003, U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, file no. 0-3400.

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