- 26 May 20
Just when it seemed like we might really be getting on top of the coronavirus, it emerged that there had been a number of serious outbreaks in Ireland’s meat-processing factories. The same is true in America – and doubtless elsewhere too. So what can be done?
If you ever visit Boulder, Colorado in the United States, you’ll see the Flatirons. They look like old-fashioned clothes irons. Most of the year they’re high and dry and that air you suck as you climb is as pure and clear as it gets. That’s why the US National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) was built there. Film buffs might recognise that as the futuristic building in Woody Allen’s Sleeper.
Maybe that clean air is why the locals are so aware of Greeley. When they can smell it, they know snow is coming. But the thing is, Greeley lies a full 100km to the north east!
The city takes its smelly reputation seriously and has on its payroll two officials who are trained to detect odours. That’s their full time job.
They say it’s not as bad as it used to be. But it’s a cow town and the beef plant is, by a distance, the largest employer. It’s operated by JBS USA which is a subsidiary of Brazil’s JBS SA, so we’re talking highly intensive cattle rearing and meat production.
DIRTY PHYSICAL WORK
Knowing what you know, you’ll not be surprised to hear that the meat plant in Greeley has been described by Marketwatch as “one of America’s most severe industrial coronavirus hot spots”. Emails seen by Marketwatch detail the development of the problem and the increasingly agitated response of the local Chief Health Officer, as hundreds of employees contracted the virus.
Hospitals complained about a “work while sick” culture. The company didn’t test all workers. The union said it had also broken promises to provide sick leave, worker safety training and accused it of continued “reckless endangerment of the workers”.
That plant is just one of nine JBS beef production facilities across the U.S. and Canada and it’s not alone in its bad coronavirus luck. In the past month a slew of major meat production companies in the US have shut down because of Covid-19 infections.
And while the US, with outbreaks in a staggering 180 meat and processed food plants, is hardest hit, other countries are also being whacked: notably Spain, Germany, Brazil, Canada, Australia and… Ireland.
At the time of writing there are outbreaks at twelve plants in Ireland. Almost 600 workers are affected and quite possibly many more. It’s not yet the kind of carnage we have seen in the nursing homes, but it’s still pretty bad.
At Rosderra’s pigmeat plant in Co. Tipperary, 120 workers tested positive for the virus as did 60 in their Edenderry plant. Dawn Meats closed its plant in Westmeath following positive cases.
Given that food production is supposed to be really hygienic, overseen by the Food Safety Authority and stringent in-company standards you’d be forgiven for wondering what the fuck is going on. Why would plants be so susceptible to Covid-19 infections on a world-wide basis?
The answers vary. US health officials cite difficulties with physical distancing and hygiene, and crowded living and transportation conditions. Irish unions talk of crowded working conditions, workforces that have a high proportion of migrant workers who live in communal housing, and the fact that plants have remained open during the crisis.
All true, in part, no doubt. These factors follow logically from the socially, environmentally and economically unsustainable global preoccupation with cheap food and vast profits. What you might call Big Food straddles the globe and insinuates itself into every fibre of food production and distribution.
It’s capitalism in the raw: red in tooth and claw. Shortcuts are inevitable. Working conditions are miserable. Factories don’t make personal protective equipment available and they don’t enforce social distancing guidelines. It’s dirty, physical work and few people in advanced societies want to do it – so, in a meat producing country like ours, the workers are imported. The same is true of fruit and vegetable farming – but in that case there seem to be less issues with overcrowding.
They come from everywhere in our meat plants. Eastern Europe, especially Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria but also from further afield, including Brazil, China and South Africa and, for halal production, Pakistan. Just like every other big meat-producing country.
Wherever you go in that meaty world, the workers are low-paid and poorly housed. And if you start to ask hard questions you get the same response. Back in In Greeley, Dr. Mark Wallace, Weld County’s Chief Health Officer, was putting pressure on JBS from the beginning of April, telling them he was getting calls from area hospitals about a “quite large” number of plant workers reporting to emergency rooms, some of them needing to be put on ventilators.
He issued a public letter on April 5, which noted that two-thirds of JBS employees testing positive had reported to work even though they were sick and that hospital patients had described a “work while sick” culture at the plant. But instead of action he got a request for new guidelines for businesses opening. In other words, eff off with your concerns. He quit his position on May 8.
We hope it’s different here, but the complaints from meat plant staff echo those made elsewhere. Yes, at least our health officials are heard. But it’s unlikely that there isn’t continuous local and national pressure on officials and politicians to don the green jersey.
Our meat industry is already in trouble. Beef farmers can’t make a living. Supermarkets drive prices down. And even cheaper artificial meat is entering the supply chain too.
Big companies like JBS and its ilk dominate world production and distribution. They have no qualms about hormones or factories or worker conditions. It’s a massive achievement for Irish meat processors to be able to compete with them. But that can’t be at the expense of the workers.
Indeed, the treatment of meat workers on the American continent could provide a genuine reason for arguing against the possible importation of US and Brazilian beef into Europe after Brexit… but only, you might say, if there’s no whiff of Greeley off us.
We’ve saluted the health care workers and first responders, the nurses and doctors, the police, the transport workers, the delivery drivers. Well, let us now hear it for the meat factory workers, the fishermen and the fruit and veg pickers. No matter where these workers come from, they are frontline too.
If we want to secure our food-chain, we have to pay more. And the food industry must up its game.