Civil Rights Complaint against Tyson and JBS over COVID-19 Failures

by Ryan Nebeker

7/14/20

The COVID-19 pandemic has put the unsafe and exploitative labor practices at meatpacking companies in the national spotlight, with Tyson and JBS facilities ranking as some of the largest hotspots of infection in the country. Workers in the food system are predominantly Black and brown, and these outbreaks have devastated their communities.

Last week, a number of advocacy groups, including the Food Chain Workers Alliance, the HEAL Food Alliance and Forward Latino filed a civil rights complaint against the two companies. It alleges that Tyson and JBS violated federal civil rights rules by failing to protect workers from the pandemic. While it’s unclear whether the USDA will acknowledge the civil rights complaint — especially given the agency’s friendliness to meatpackers under the Trump administration — the complaint is the latest action in a tireless campaign by activists to raise awareness and bring change to the terrible conditions workers face in meatpacking.

How Meatpacking Companies are Discriminating

Tyson and JBS, along with their subsidiaries listed in the civil rights complaint (Keystone Foods and Pilgrim’s Pride, respectively) receive a lot of federal money, mostly in the form of USDA trade aid. As part of its larger trade war relief efforts, the USDA purchases food from farmers and food manufacturers who have lost export sales. This program has already been controversial for funneling money into meatpackers’ pockets rather than going to American farmers; $67 million worth of pork purchases from JBS, a Brazilian company, came under criticism earlier this year as a misuse of funds. Together, the two companies have already received more than $150 million in purchases in 2020 alone.

The fact that the companies receive this federal money is central to the complaint: the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires companies who receive federal funding to be in compliance with the federal anti-discrimination law.

So how are the companies discriminating? The COVID-19 pandemic is affecting minority communities far more than it affects white people, and this is especially true in cases stemming from meatpacking: the CDC reported that minorities made up 87% of COVID cases in meatpacking facilities. Most of these cases are in frontline workers, while the majority-white management staff of the plants are much better protected from the virus. With this disproportionate impact in mind, the complaint argues that the meatpackers’ failure to protect their employees is a form of discrimination.

Negligence and Diversion from Meatpackers

The companies could have predicted and avoided these outbreaks. After several early outbreaks and plant closures, the CDC and OSHA issued guidelines for meatpacking facilities in April on how to safely operate during the pandemic, including face coverings and distance between employees. While meatpackers made some changes, most facilities refused to implement the guidelines because they would slow down production. Overall, the meatpackers’ responses to the pandemic illustrate that their primary concern is profit, not safety.

In response to the guidelines and the looming threat of more plant closures, Tyson issued a full-page ad in the New York Times warning about meat shortages, arguing that their plants needed to remain running unimpeded as a matter of national security. Bowing to industry pressure, President Trump announced an executive order mandating the plants remain open.

Notably absent from the order were firm protections for workers, and meatpacking case counts skyrocketed through May and June. The meatpackers’ failure to implement the guidelines proved fatal for workers: 367 meatpacking facilities across the country have seen outbreaks, and more than 34,000 workers have been infected with the virus. Meanwhile, meatpackers have reneged on what little pandemic protections they were offering in the first place — Tyson has reinstated its attendance policies that punish workers for being sick, for example — and claims of a meat shortage have dissolved in light of record pork exports to China and near-normal production.

A Wider Effort

While the civil rights complaint makes clear demands — that the USDA suspend its financial relationships with Tyson and JBS until they instate better protections — but a lack of transparency over the review process makes the timeline and likely outcome unclear. Given that the complaint will be decided by Sonny Perdue, who has generally been friendly towards meatpackers, it’s unlikely that the USDA will substantively require them to change their policies.

Ultimately, the complaint represents the latest act of resistance against the meat industry’s constant campaign to operate as normal. Despite the industry’s deep entrenchment against improving conditions for workers (Tyson has gone so far as to invest in expensive robotic butchers rather than the more economical option of raising wages or benefits), activists have successfully brought outside attention to the struggle. Journalists and plant workers have risked retaliation to speak up on the terrible conditions in meatpacking. Multiple members of Congress have demanded accountability from major meatpacking companies. A large coalition of advocacy groups recently wrapped up a week of action insisting that Tyson do more to protect workers. To some extent, these actions are working: people are finally talking about the tradeoffs we make in the food system, specifically how we prioritize profit over workers’ lives. Whether this impacts buying behavior and the bottom line of companies like Tyson and JBS remains unclear.

 

Top photo by pantovich/ Adobe Stock.

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