We are not battery hens: covid outbreaks in the meat packing industry

Why are so many workers in the meat processing industry succumbing to the coronavirus?

Proletarian writers

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Covid outbreaks in meat processing plants have laid bare the appalling living and working conditions of many of those working in the sector.

Proletarian writers

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As governments in England and Wales press on with the relaxation of lockdown measures, bowing to pressure from big business to get employees back to work at whatever cost to their safety, local covid-19 outbreaks are popping up with alarming frequency. The latest victims to hit the headlines have been workers in food-processing plants.

Early in June Food and Drink Federation chief Ian Wright came up before the Commons environment, food and rural affairs committee, where he warned that food factory workers were being starved of PPE and confused by inadequate government advice. He reported “unbelievable” delays in guidance over face masks and safety procedures.

Covid outbreak hits meat processing plant in Wales

Just over a week later 2 Sisters, a large chicken-processing company in Anglesey that produces a third of all poultry products consumed in the UK, broke the news that 158 of its Llangefni factory staff had been infected with covid and that all 560 staff and employees at the plant were now self-isolating.

This turn of events puts a question mark over the Welsh government’s haste in relaxing the lockdown, as shown in the intention to lift travel restrictions in Wales from 6 July.

Ian Quinn, writing in the trade magazine The Grocer, was caustic: “The food and drink industry has had plenty of proud moments during the Covid-19 crisis. Potentially sending the entire population of Anglesey back into lockdown isn’t one of them.

“According to today’s reports, a major coronavirus outbreak at a 2 Sisters food factory – which has resulted in more than 150 cases, at the last count – has put back plans to reopen schools in the area.

“This marks the third outbreak in a week affecting food factories. An Oscar Mayer site, again in Wales, and a meat plant owned by Asda in West Yorkshire, have also shut their doors in the past few days.” (Food factory coronavirus cases reflect fudged government response by Ian Quinn, The Grocer, 22 June 2020)

An industry-wide problem

Other covid outbreaks have come to light, affecting the food industry. In May three workers died at a Cranswick food processing plant in Barnsley, and over in the six counties a Moy Park worker succumbed to the virus.

Not content to sit and wait to become another statistic, in April workers walked out of factories in Swindon and London, run by DHL and Bakkavor, in protest at the failure of bosses to implement government guidelines.

Wages and conditions of work are low in the food processing industry. Many of those at 2 Sisters are migrant workers cooped up in houses of multiple occupation where hygiene and social distancing are hard to maintain, as is also the case at work, where long and arduous shifts in cold conditions take their toll on workers’ health.

The health emergency in the food processing industry, far from being an isolated outbreak in Anglesey, is rampant throughout Europe and the US. The Food & Environment Reporting Network (Fern) reports that nearly 30,000 meat-plant workers in Europe and the US have been infected by covid and over 100 have died of it.

In the US alone, there have been at least 27,000 infections and 86 deaths. And in May President Trump signed an executive order to keep meat plants open.

Covid outbreaks expose horrendous working conditions

Peter Schmidt of German food workers’ union NGG maintains: “The entire sector is in a disastrous race to the bottom, driven by the market and by consumer demand for cheap meat,” noting that modern plants in Germany draft in contract workers from eastern Europe.

Having seen their own countries’ formerly socialist economies trashed by counter-revolution, these workers must now put up with low wages.

Schmidt reports: “The working conditions in these plants are the absolute worst; cold, close together, working at high speed. And the housing, it is like in slavery times. When we were looking at it, we found that people were having to share beds. You do a 12-hour shift and then you change over.” (Poor conditions in meat plants fuel Covid-19 outbreaks, say unions by Bibi van der Zee, The Guardian, 22 June 2020)

In short, the way that capitalism treats workers bears more than a passing resemblance to the way it treats the animals it processes for consumption. And covid in unerringly seeking out those communities whom capitalism has already plunged deepest into poverty, exploitation and ill-health.