MINNEAPOLIS – A two-year-old law intended to improve safety for meatpacking workers has failed and conditions in many plants have actually gotten worse, according to a survey by the Human Rights Program at the University of Minnesota. In 2007, the Minnesota Legislature passed a Packinghouse Workers Bill of Rights, becoming only the second state – after Nebraska – to implement legislation targeting one of the most dangerous industries. Among other things, the bill provides meatpacking workers the right to adequate equipment to safely perform their jobs and information about occupational hazards known to exist in the workplace.

To test the effectiveness of the law, researchers conducted an in-depth survey of 51 current and former meatpacking workers at two poultry plants, two beef plants and one pork plant in Minnesota. The surveys, which were voluntary, were administered in English, Spanish or Somali and took between 30 minutes and an hour to complete.

The results were striking, researchers Barbara Frey, Chris Strunk and Alyssa Erickson wrote.

“Our findings show that workers’ primary concerns about conditions were the increasing speed of the production line and the association of line speed with workplace injuries,” they wrote.

“The surveys also established that, so far, the Bill of Rights has not been effective in informing workers about their rights or noticeably transforming working conditions in the meatpacking industry. Almost none of the workers surveyed had heard of the Packinghouse Bill of Rights. Even more worrying, more than half of the workers said that the existence of workers’ rights in the plants made little to no difference in their lives.”

Facing danger everyday
Meatpacking is among the most dangerous jobs in the United States. Workers perform repetitive tasks, often working with sharp knives, along a quickly moving production line. They must deal with loud noises while working in extreme hot and cold temperatures and lifting heavy animals.

As a result, workers often suffer from repetitive motion injuries such as carpal tunnel and tendonitis, and occasionally sustain more serious injuries like cuts and, more rarely, amputations.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the injury rate in the meatpacking industry in 2007 was more than twice the national average for manufacturing jobs.

Workers point to the speed of the production line as a main reason for the high injury rate.

Slightly over half of the workers surveyed had experienced or witnessed injuries in the plants, and a number of workers connected injuries directly to line speed. As one worker put it, “it isn’t safe because the line is very fast – twice as fast as it was last year.”

Fifty years ago, many meatpacking plants were unionized and workers bargained with management to reduce line speed and provide adequate staffing. But as the industry became consolidated under a few large corporations, many operations were moved outside the more-unionized urban areas to non-union rural areas. As compensation and working conditions worsened, fewer native-born Americans filled the jobs. According to the United Food and Commercial Workers, more than half of workers in meatpacking plants are now immigrants.

Supporters of the Bill of Rights had hoped it would empower workers to take action, but the survey found the law remains largely unknown.

“More than two-thirds of workers surveyed had not heard of the Packinghouse Workers Bill of Rights,” the researchers wrote. “Only 20 percent of workers were able to confirm that the bill is posted in the plant, and several workers told us specifically that the bill is not posted in their native language.”

Needed reforms
The state Commissioner of Labor and Industry is charged with enforcing the Bill of Rights, but no money was appropriated to staff the enforcement. In the conclusion of their report, Frey, Strunk and Erickson argue for the creation of a “meatpacking workers’ rights coordinator.”

They also conclude that a fundamental way to reduce injuries is to give workers more control over the speed of the assembly line.

“Steps should be taken to ensure that line speeds in Minnesota plants are designed to improve worker safety and the quality of meat that is sold to consumers . . . The Minnesota Packinghouse Bill of Rights represents a potentially important step forward for meatpacking workers and their advocates, but it needs to be supported with improved outreach to workers about their rights and active enforcement to ensure safe workplaces,” they conclude.

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