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Southern Poverty Law Center
Inter-American Commission on Human Rights Hears Testimony About Worker Abuse in U.S. Meatpacking, Poultry Plants
WASHINGTON – Civil rights groups and meat and poultry workers testified before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) today, describing how the U.S. government’s policies has failed to protect meat and poultry workers by allowing dangerously fast work speeds that cause crippling injuries.
The group of petitioners, which also described other human rights violations within the industry, called for the federal government to enact work speed protections and oppose the dangerous rule proposed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) that would increase poultry line speeds. The group, which petitioned the international commission for the hearing, has worked to raise awareness about the disabling injuries and dangers faced by the workers responsible for making the United States the world’s largest producer of beef and poultry.
“It is clear that the policies and practices of America’s meat and poultry processing industry have created a health and safety crisis for its workers,” said Omaid Zabih, staff attorney for the Nebraska Appleseed Center for Law in the Public Interest, a co-petitioner. “By not enacting a work speed safety standard and other protections, the federal government has failed to protect the basic human rights of meatpacking and poultry processing workers.”
The hearing comes as the USDA prepares to finalize a new regulation that would increase poultry slaughter line speeds from the current maximum of 140 birds per minute to 175 birds per minute. The new regulations also would remove hundreds of federal food safety inspectors from plants, allowing plant employees to serve as inspectors and remove tainted chicken from the line.
“The current processing line speeds in poultry plants already have created an epidemic of debilitating workplace injuries,” said Tom Fritzsche, staff attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center, a co-petitioner. “We must ensure that the men and women feeding this nation have a safe workplace. We also must protect consumers from contaminated poultry.”
The petitioners described how companies commit human rights violations because the federal government never has sufficiently regulated the meat and poultry industries, particularly the speed of the processing lines.
“I packed hams for 8 hours a day, 40 to 50 hams every minute. The processing line moves tremendously fast and doesn’t stop,” said Teresa Martinez, a former meatpacking worker from Nebraska who testified at the hearing. “After just 3 years I had to have surgery. When I had pain and warning signs at the beginning and reported it, they only gave me pills and ice to stop the pain. Eventually it started hurting so severely I couldn’t raise my arm. At home I was unable to do simple things like lifting my baby or sweeping the floor. What I wanted when I worked at the plant was to be treated like a human being and not like some replaceable machine.”
Many of the abuses discussed at the hearing have been documented by the SPLC in its 2013 poultry industry 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.
Petitioners include the Midwest Coalition for Human Rights, Nebraska Appleseed Center for Law in the Public Interest, and the Southern Poverty Law Center. A large coalition of other organizations across the country have been working diligently in calling for an end to crippling injuries in meat and poultry processing, including the Center for Effective Government, Center for Progressive Reform, Food & Water Watch, NAACP, National Council of La Raza, National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, Oxfam America, Alabama Appleseed, Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, Coalition of Poultry Workers, Heartland Workers Center, North Carolina Justice Center, Northwest Arkansas Worker Justice Center Refugee Women’s Network, Student Action with Farmworkers, Western North Carolina Worker Center, and others.
Requests for interviews with coalition members and former Nebraska meat and poultry workers who testified at the IACHR hearing in D.C. should be made to Apreill Hartsfield of the Southern Poverty Law Center at (334) 782-6624.
Photos of the IACHR hearing are available here. For high-resolution versions, contact Jeff Sheldon of Nebraska Appleseed at (402) 438-8853 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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