Civil Rights Groups Urge Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to Examine Dangerous Work Conditions in U.S. Poultry, Meatpacking Plants

USDA Secretary Vilsack on Notice to Protect Workers

WASHINGTON – A coalition of civil rights groups urged the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights today to address human rights violations in U.S. poultry and meatpacking plants – violations that are the result of federal policies failing to protect the workers responsible for making the United States the largest producer of beef and poultry in the world.

The groups petitioned the commission to hold a hearing on the state of human rights within these industries. The hearing, known as a thematic hearing, examines a government’s alleged shortcomings in protecting its people from human rights violations.  A copy of the petition and a letter urging action was sent to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsack. The coalition includes the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), Nebraska Appleseed Center for Law in the Public Interest and the Midwest Coalition for Human Rights.

“The failure of the United States to enforce existing laws and enact adequate regulatory protections has a direct result on the violations of human rights,” according to the petition.

If the hearing request is granted, the coalition would discuss the issue before the Washington-based commission, which promotes and protects human rights in the Americas. U.S. officials also would be invited to address the issue.

The petition describes how these workers endure significant injuries and illnesses as they are forced to keep up with the punishing speed of processing lines – even having to urinate and defecate on themselves because they are not allowed to leave the line. These workers can make 20,000 cuts a day to the meat and poultry on the line, work speeds which lead to debilitating repetitive motion injuries, such as carpal tunnel syndrome. Others endure knife cuts and respiratory illnesses.

Since many of these workers are recent immigrants, they are fearful of losing their jobs – or facing the scrutiny of immigration officials – if they report injuries or complain about working conditions. This silence results in these industries having injury rates that are far higher than what is publicly reported.

These findings have been documented by the SPLC in its 2013 report “Unsafe at These Speeds: Alabama’s Poultry Industry and its Disposable Workers.” Nebraska Appleseed documented similar findings in the meatpacking industry in its 2009 report “The Speed Kills You.” The groups’ findings have been echoed in worker interviews conducted by the Midwest Coalition for Human Rights.

“The United States has not acted with due diligence nor has it taken proper steps to prevent abuses of meatpacking and poultry processing workers’ human rights, and are inasmuch violating the rights of workers in the poultry industry through its negligence,” according to the petition.

The petition and the letter to Vilsack can be viewed at www.splcenter.org

BACKGROUND INFORMATION

Petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights Background Information

A coalition of civil rights groups has requested a thematic hearing before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to address human rights violations in the U.S. meatpacking and poultry processing industries. A thematic hearing examines a government’s alleged shortcomings in protecting its people from human rights violations.

Meatpacking and poultry processing workers often endure significant injuries and illnesses as they are forced to keep up with the punishing speed of processing lines. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration does not have specific regulations for these industries.

The only federal agency regulating line speed is the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is solely focused on food safety and maximizing production for the industry. Though there is ample evidence that line speed is a primary contributor to injuries, the USDA has proposed increasing poultry processing line speeds from a maximum of 140 birds per minute to 175, underscoring the urgent need for a hearing.

Facts and Resources About Meatpacking and Poultry Processing:

  • Researchers with the Wake Forest School of Medicine studying the health of poultry processing workers in North Carolina since 2004 found that poultry workers were two and-a-half times more likely to have carpal tunnel than non-poultry workers. It also found that 60% of poultry workers had medical indicators of carpal tunnel syndrome.
  • A 2013 evaluation of one poultry plant in South Carolina by the National Institute of
  • Occupational Safety and Health found that 42 percent of workers had indicators of carpal tunnel syndrome.
  • The Nebraska Appleseed Center for Law in the Public Interest surveyed 455 Nebraska meatpacking workers for its 2009 report “The Speed Kills You. It included these findings:
    • Sixty-two percent of workers indicated they had been injured in the past year.
    • Seventy-three percent of workers said the processing line speed had increased in the past year. Ninety-four percent said that the number of staff had decreased or stayed the same during that time.
    • Less than half of workers (44 percent) remember receiving information about workers’ compensation.
  • The Southern Poverty Law Center and the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law & Justice interviewed more than 300 Alabama poultry workers for its 2013 report “Unsafe at These Speeds.”   It included these findings:
    • Almost three-quarters of workers had suffered a significant work-related illness or injury.
    • Seventy-eight percent of workers said that an increase in line speed makes them feel less safe, makes their work more painful and causes more injuries.
    • Eighty-six percent of wing cutters and 80 percent of deboners reported hand and wrist pain such as swelling, numbness or an inability to close their hands – symptoms of long-term repetitive motion injuries.
  • The Charlotte (N.C.) Observer interviewed more than 200 poultry workers across the Southeast for its 2008 series “The Cruelest Cuts.”

It found evidence that serious worker injuries went unreported and requests for medical care were dismissed at a major poultry producer.

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