On Jan 28, six poultry workers died as a result of a liquid nitrogen leak at the Foundation Foods poultry plant, formerly known as Prime Pak, in Gainesville, Georgia. Those who died include Jose DeJesus Elias-Cabrera, Corey Alan Murphy, Nelly Perez-Rafael, Saulo Suarez-Bernal, Victor Vellez, and Edgar Vera-Garcia.
An hour drive north of Atlanta, Gainesville is home to the poultry packing capital of the U.S. The industry has been cited for rampant violations of workplace safety conditions, low wages and benefits, union busting tactics and exploitation of the large Latino immigrant population which predominantly works at the plants.
Over 130 workers were evacuated from the plant by school buses to the nearby Free Chapel church. First responders checked the workers for exposure to the deadly chemical. However the details of a GoFundMe for the victims’ families posted by Maria Palacios reads, “Many workers felt it necessary to leave [the church] out of fear that their legal status might be called into question or even used against them. Up to 100 of these workers have not undergone a pulmonary examination to verify their level of chemical exposure.”
Continued medical attention is needed for the workers in Gainesville. A local reporter explained that there are reports of workers feeling sick after returning home. A local grassroots organization is planning a pop-up clinic to help those still in need of medical treatment.
Speaking with Liberation News, Diego who works at the plant explained, “Many of my coworkers are Latinos, and there were familiar faces that I saw among the evacuated… right now this plant is partially shut down. There is no work being done inside.”
Worker exploitation and negligence in the plants
In August of 2019, one week after the massive immigration raid on Mississippi chicken plants where 680 workers were arrested, hundreds of Gainesville workers left work out of fear of similar raids. In 2006, the federal immigration authorities raided a chicken plant and nearby homes in Stillmore, Georgia, arresting more than 120 people.
“My wife is very nervous and is unsure if she will keep working at the poultry factory,” stated Julio. He added, “There is a mentality of fear here and people live scared because of ICE.”
Last year, 400 Gainesville poultry workers contracted COVID-19 leading to the death of two workers. After Trump declared meat packaging an essential infrastructure in 2020, workers were forced back into processing plants regardless of COVID safety violations.
Hall County, which includes Gainesville, has the highest per capita rate of COVID-19 in North Georgia, with the Latino population disproportionately affected. According to the CDC, of the reported cases in the meat packing industry that listed racial background, 87% of cases were non-white workers.
“There is no such thing as 6 feet of distance in the plant. It’s a factory line, and you’re right next to everyone. If there was more distance then the virus rates wouldn’t be as high,” said Julio. Meat packing plants are a hot spot for virus transmission, and many workers feel that they are unprotected.
The blatant disregard for worker safety is illustrated by a wrongful death lawsuit alleging that managers at a Tyson Food chicken plant in Iowa betted on how many workers would contract COVID-19.
Foundation Foods is legally responsible to maintain safe working conditions for all of its employees. The families of the fallen workers must be financially compensated and treated with utmost dignity. In light of the devastating loss, each affected family should be extended a pension. Pending the release of the investigation, the company must take all the necessary measures to ensure a tragedy such as this never occurs again.