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There seems to be some contradictory messaging between poultry industry owners and workers when it comes to employee health and safety. On one hand, top producers are getting patted on the back for "outstanding safety performance." On the other, workers and inspectors report impossibly fast line speeds and unsafe conditions they fear will worsen under a new poultry processing plan.
Last week, the Joint Industry Safety and Health Council recognized 92 U.S. poultry facilities for worker safety performance, including Butterball, Cargill, Perdue and Wayne Farms. The top honor, the Award of Distinction, was given to several of their poultry processing facilities, including a Cargill plant in Texas that is participating in a controversial pilot program that may, in fact, enhance worker safety concerns. The program
- increases already unmanageable line speeds,
- removes government inspectors, and
- transfers those government duties to plant workers, who lack adequate whistleblower protections and feel obligated to keep quiet when they experience problems
These are just some of the numerous issues whistleblowers have raised about the program's changes. Two other plants participating in the problematic inspection program, a Butterball processing plant in North Carolina and a Pilgrim's Pride plant in Texas, each received an Award of Honor for their worker safety.
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A new lawsuit brings to light yet another piece of the saga that is Tyson Foods' meat processing problems. Up to 2,000 Tyson employees from its pork processing plant in Logansport, Indiana have filed a lawsuit alleging that the company failed to compensate them for overtime pay.
An agribusiness news service reports:
According to the law suit, Tyson employees were not compensated for an array of work-related activities, including time spent donning, doffing and cleaning safety equipment at the Logansport plant, as well as time spent on production activities. Tyson, headquartered in Springdale, Ark., is the world's largest processor and marketer of chicken, beef and pork products.
This isn't the first bad news we've heard regarding a Tyson Foods pig plant recently. A Kansas City Star investigative report chronicled the case of GAP client Jim Schrier, a USDA inspector who blew the whistle on humane handling violations at a Tyson pig plant in Iowa. He was sent to another plant more than 120 miles away after raising concerns to his supervisor.
Meanwhile, several USDA inspectors, including whistleblower Sherry Medina in Alabama, also reported to FIC the excessive use of chemicals at Tyson poultry plants that threatens the health of workers and adds to questionable changes within the industry.
Tyson Foods clearly needs to get its act together and prioritize better treatment of workers (which in turn can lead to safer food and better treatment of animals). Everyone, including Tyson's media relations, would benefit.
Sarah Damian is New Media Associate for the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower protection and advocacy organization.
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Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT)All potential whistleblowers who play a role in food production should have adequate protections to safely report problems they spot on the job. That means even (if not especially) immigrant workers, who make up a significant portion of the workforce along the food supply chain but are the most vulnerable when it comes to blowing the whistle.
Under the pending Senate immigration bill, Americans would rely increasingly on immigrant workers – specifically, temporary guest workers with H-2B visas – to carry out U.S. industry jobs, including food processing.
But as previous cases have illustrated (such as last year's debacle with one of Wal-Mart's seafood suppliers), guest workers often experience horrific working conditions while not enjoying any whistleblower protections. That's a serious problem, considering the proposed legislation could quadruple the size of the H-2B program over the next four years, from 66,000 workers to 264,000.
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Image Courtesy of UNITE HEREShouldn't workers who serve food on college campuses be free to speak up on the job? Food integrity can't really exist if those charged with handling your food have no voice.
Fortunately, UNITE HERE – the largest worker organization in North America representing food service workers – has launched its Real Food Real Jobs campaign at universities in the nation's capital to ensure better working conditions and worker participation in bringing safe, healthy food options to students.
In addition to pushing for traditional benefits – including living wages, health care benefits, and full-time work hours – the campaign is also making worker voices a priority. Erin O'Donnell, a UNITE HERE research analyst working on the campaign, explained why worker input is an incredibly valuable asset to the food movement.
They are on the front-lines of the growing, preparing, cooking, serving, of the foodservice industry, and their voices not only matter in a basic human sense in that everyone should have the right to be able to speak up on their job and talk about what matters to them and have their voices be heard, but they're also really valuable because they know what it means to try to serve thousands of often pretty picky students every single day and try to feed them the best quality food possible.
To ensure the workers have a voice, UNITE HERE is working to establish a "joint worker/management committee" that involves workers and campus community members in food-related decision-making. It gives those on the front-lines a key voice where it counts. Again, from O'Donnell:
That committee is also going to conduct a survey of workers to get everyone's input on what kind of changes should be made in the dining halls. The committee is also going to serve as a place where workers can bring concerns about food safety and food quality if issues like that happen to arise, which is a great protection for workers.
The effort in DC has already found success at American University (AU), where a major landmark agreement was made in late January between AU workers and Bon Appétit Management Company that achieves all major upgrades the workers sought – including the assurances of whistleblower protections.
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Good news surfaced last week when the Department of Labor announced a settlement resulting in compensation for foreign student workers who faced labor abuses at a Hershey candy company packing plant. Three companies, including Hershey contractor Exel Inc. (which oversaw the plant), agreed to pay $213,042 in back wages to more than 1,028 students in the J-1 visa Summer Work Study program. In addition to the back wages, the settlement also requires two of the companies to pay $148,000 in safety and health violation fines.
FIC blogged last summer about the students' brave disclosures, including meager wages and harsh working conditions, amidst the threat of deportation – a far cry from the fun cultural experience they were promised.
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A new report by the Midwest Coalition for Human Rights details the dangerous working conditions and human rights violations that occur in meat and poultry processing facilities in the Midwest. Based on interviews with Latino and other immigrant plant workers, researchers revealed the significant health and safety risks these workers faced every day, and unsurprisingly, workers provided a clear link between these risks and fast-paced line speeds.
How poignant, given that the USDA's proposed poultry inspection rule would further increase line speeds! FIC has highlighted the concerns of USDA whistleblowers regarding the agency's plan, which they say would replace government inspectors with plant workers who are powerless to speak out against their employers (including when they see food safety concerns). One retired USDA inspector, Phyllis McKelvey, has worked at poultry plants where the proposed rule's faster line speeds are already implemented in a pilot program. As a consequence, Phyllis told FIC, not only do the plant workers miss problems with the birds, but they also expose themselves to injury. Sign Phyllis's petition to stop this flawed rule from moving forward!
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Photo via flickr user iantmcfarlandBig news came yesterday with the announcement that Mexican fast food chain Chipotle has, at last, signed an agreement with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) to improve wages and working conditions for Florida's tomato farmworkers. The agreement comes right before the winter growing season, when most of the nation's tomatoes come from Florida.
It's about time, Chipotle! Earlier this year, FIC explained how the chain's trademarked slogan of "Food with Integrity" continued to ignore the routine exploitation of food workers – potential whistleblowers whose voices should be heard. Now that Chipotle has joined CIW's Fair Food Program (making it the 11th company to do so), its public image has some real accountability to back it up.