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Human Rights Watch Report "Way off the Mark," Says AMI

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

(Washington, DC – January 24, 2005) The following statement should be attributed to J. Patrick Boyle, President and CEO, American Meat Institute, in response to the report "Blood, Sweat and Fear, Workers' Rights in U.S. Meat and Poultry Plants," released today by Human Rights Watch.

The report alleging harsh working conditions and abusive employment practices in America’s meat and poultry processing plants is replete with falsehoods and baseless claims. In fact, there are so many refutable claims and irresponsible accusations contained in this 175 page report that it would take another 175 pages to correct the errors.

Among the falsehoods and misleading allegations in the report:

• The report alleges that “meatpacking work has extraordinarily high rates of injury.” The meat and poultry industry has seen a significant and consistent decline in injury rates and illnesses for more than a decade. These improvements are extraordinary, particularly in a field where many workers use very sharp knives or work with live or freshly harvested animals. Worker safety and retention has to be a high priority if meatpacking companies want to stay in business. The fact that there are employees who work on the line and have been working in the industry for decades speaks volumes about the environment in which they work. For more information on worker safety statistics: http://www.meatinstitute.org/content/presscenter/factsheets_Infokits/FactSheetWorkerSafety.pdf

o The report charges meatpackers with “widespread underreporting of injuries.” The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) closely and regularly monitors the record keeping of employers to ensure that injuries are reported. Major lapses in record keeping would result in citations and fines leveled by OSHA. OSHA has not had a significant complaint against a meatpacker for decades. Workers who are injured on the job receive compensation, and their rights as workers are guaranteed by federal law.

o The report claims that workers are forced to work at “unprecedented volume and pace.” The report claims that line speeds should be reduced to address “foreseeable and preventable risk of injury,” yet the injury rate industry wide is lower than ever. Line speeds, which are monitored by USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, have not changed appreciably in 15 years, and are engineered to ensure that the amount of work reaching an employee is appropriate and safe. For more information on line speed : http://www.meatinstitute.org/content/presscenter/factsheets_Infokits/FactSheetLineSpeeds.pdf

• The report claims that “many” workers in the industry are undocumented, and thus easily exploitable. Since 1997, the meatpacking industry has been at the forefront in working with the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (now Citizenship and Immigration Service) to develop, test and implement a program designed to ensure that only those workers who are in the country legally have access to jobs in the meat and poultry industry. Last year, based upon the success of this pilot program, Congress directed that it be expanded nationwide for all types of employers. Instead of exploiting workers, many plants offer English as a Second Language classes and citizenship workshops for employees.

o The report accuses the meatpacking industry of taking advantage of the limited ability of some of its employees to speak English. The opposite is true. The meatpacking industry has always been a gateway industry for newly arrived immigrants. Although employees are encouraged to learn English on the job, and some companies offer programs to assist that effort, signs in dominant foreign languages, as well as bilingual supervisors are commonplace in packing plants.

• The report claims that workers who try to “form unions and bargain collectively” are “suspended, fired, [or] deported.” Many workers have decided to remain non-union because they see little value in union membership. Today, only eight (8) percent of non-government employees in the U.S. belong to labor unions. By contrast, meatpacking plants are four times above the national average in union membership. The reason some unions may be unsuccessful in organizing additional meat and poultry facilities is because the workers see little or no value in union membership, given the wages being offered industry wide.

• The report criticizes meatpacking plants for having internal security on staff. Since 9/11, the government has repeatedly warned those in the food industry that bio-terrorism, or attacks against this nation’s food supply, is a real and possible threat. Failure to provide adequate security on premises would invite attacks on this nation’s food supply. Furthermore, added security makes plants safer for all employees as well.

• The report claims that the “1980s saw the destruction of good jobs in the meatpacking industry.” The fact is that jobs in the meatpacking industry still pay more than twice the minimum wage. But when examining total compensation packages, including benefits such as health care and retirement plans, the industry is well above the national average in comparable salaries. Lastly, most meatpacking plants are located in rural areas with generally lower costs of living and generally lower wages than in larger urban areas. This fact should be considered when comparing meatpacking plant wages to national averages.

• The report contains a disclaimer footnote which explains that since it was “not possible” to interview workers in all factories industry-wide, the specific findings of this report “may not apply to all workplaces at all times.” With a title like “Blood, Sweat and Fear, Workers Rights in the U.S. Meat and Poultry Plants,” the author obviously and intentionally mislead readers into assuming that these allegations were applicable industry-wide. This underscores the unreliable nature of the contents of the entire report. In addition, the author implies first-hand knowledge of safety issues in plants which he has never been inside. The "unlawful tactics" cited in one plant are taken from a report first released 8 years ago – hardly applicable today.

The ethnic diversity and longevity of employment of our workers is proof positive that both newcomers and native-born Americans continue to see meatpacking jobs as a viable step toward the American dream. Our commitment to the health, prosperity and happiness of our half million employees can be demonstrated by the tens of thousands of workers who choose to spend their careers in our plants.


For more information contact:
Dave Ray
Vice President, Public Affairs
Ayoka Blandford
Manager, Public Affairs

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