Pandemic reveals worker exploitation in Texas meatpacking industry

On May 19, workers at the meat processing plant, Quality Sausage Co. in Dallas, Texas gathered to protest the company’s mismanagement of a COVID-19 outbreak. The company did not follow CDC safety standards, resulting in three deaths and 63 infections. This company is one of many in Dallas and across the state of Texas that exemplifies the unsafe conditions food industry workers face nationwide.

Quality Sausage closed for two weeks on April 24 following the death of Mathias Martinez. The next day Hugo Dominguez, a forklift operator, also died of COVID-19. The plant reopened on May 8, and Bertha Cervantez died a few days afterward. Hugo Dominguez’s wife, Blanca Parra, is now speaking out and filing a wrongful death lawsuit against Quality Sausage.

“The virus was the gun that killed him but Quality Sausage was the hand that pulled the trigger,” Parra said. “We are asking for justice because the company, and the people who made the decision to continue… putting people at risk need to be held accountable.”

The lawsuit states “his death could have been prevented, had the company spent a small segment of its $100 million profits to protect its underpaid and overworked employees.” A second lawsuit is currently being filed by the family of Mathias Martinez.

Dominguez, like many others, was told to come into work, despite symptoms, or be laid off. To make matters worse, when offered testing, the workers had to sign release forms to relinquish the company’s liability. This prevented many from getting tested.

United Food and Commercial Workers Local president Johnny Rodriguez called for broader testing of all workers and management. “We cannot have a safe food supply without safety for workers in meatpacking and food processing plants and Gov. Abbott needs to do more to ensure their safety,” said Rodriguez.

Workers at other Dallas-area facilities face similar conditions. Some 40 workers have been infected at Brakebush Bros Inc., a poultry plant in Irving. Workers there are largely Black and immigrants from Myanmar and Latin America. The predominantly Latin American zip code near the plant now has the second highest rate of infection in Dallas, surpassing the Dallas County Jail.

It’s no surprise that food processing plants are epicenters of COVID-19 when workers are forced into cramped assembly lines without proper PPE, sanitation, and responsible testing. OSHA and CDC guidelines are not being taken seriously by these companies. For the bosses, the speed of the assembly line comes before workers’ lives.

Panhandle outbreaks put immigrant workers at risk

Unsafe working conditions in meatpacking plants are causing disproportionate COVID-19 rates in rural Texas counties.

In the panhandle, Moore county has the highest per-capita rate of infections in Texas, nearly 14 times that of Houston’s Harris county, the most populated area in Texas. The JBS beef plant in Moore County has 300 confirmed cases — 10 percent of their entire workforce. Nearby, in Amarillo, Tyson has tested more than 3,500 workers resulting in more than 400 cases, and one death resulting in a lawsuit. Moore, Potter, and Randall counties have a combined 2,731 cases, accounting for 41 percent of new cases in Texas on May 16.

JBS initially refused to test their workers. Spokesperson Nikki Richardson said that the company was “not aware of testing being offered by the state for our employees.” Workers said JBS responded slowly when reporting confirmed cases. Employees were never informed they came in contact with infected co-workers, resulting in family members testing positive. The company even instructed a worker to not disclose her infection to others or on social media. When testing positive, workers were sent home without notifying coworkers of their absence.

“I won’t lie — it scares me that we have so many missing and are told to say nothing about it,” said an anonymous worker.

The family of Pwar Gay filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Tyson Foods Inc. Gay worked as a meat cutter and suffered a job-related injury. She was sent to the company clinic only to be returned to work without being allowed to go home to rest or seek medical attention due to staff shortage. The company did not provide PPE to their staff, and Gay contracted the virus and died on May 8. She is one of 18 Tyson employees to have died nationwide. The lawsuit has revealed that Tyson does not provide worker’s compensation insurance.

There are not very many job options in the panhandle other than food processing. The Amarillo area is known as the beef capital of the U.S., and the area has a long history of exploiting immigrant workers. The JBS plant, formerly owned by American Beef Packers and Swift & Co., employed Laotian and Vietnamese immigrants in the 1970s. In the 1980s the workforce was mostly Latin American immigrants from Mexico and Guatemala. In 2006, Operation Wagon Train occurred nationwide. ICE raided the Swift plant, resulting in the arrests of 300 undocumented workers. Burmese, Sudanese, and Somalian refugees were moved into the rundown apartments and dilapidated trailers that formerly housed the displaced workers. Today, the workers can’t afford to quit, even during the pandemic, because they are tied to company owned apartments.

Underdevelopment puts rural East Texans at risk

Most of the 69 confirmed cases in Shelby County are attributed to a Tyson plant, making Shelby the second highest county in per capita rate of coronavirus cases. Located at the Texas-Louisiana border, the region has suffered disproportionately from the pandemic. African-Americans are the hardest hit, with higher than average rates of infection and COVID-19 related deaths.

Rural areas are ill equipped to deal with COVID-19. More than 1/5th of the 254 counties in Texas have just one doctor, or none at all. More than 20 hospitals have closed in rural areas since 2013, all in East Texas. Shelby has no hospital, and residents must travel 40 minutes to Nacogdoches for emergency care, or two hours to care facilities in Tyler for COVID-19 treatment. In addition, Texas has been slow to implement testing, ranking as one of the lowest states in completed tests per capita.

In Lufkin, Texas, Pilgrim’s Pride remains open despite their workers making up half the confirmed cases in Angelina County. Maria Hernandez, a worker at Pilgrim, is the only COVID-19 related death in the county. Hernandez began showing symptoms on April 25. She wasn’t tested until May 4, and died on May 8, days after receiving her positive test result.

Several workers believe Pilgrim’s safety measures were too late and insufficient. Employees were threatened with termination if they took time off or requested a leave of absence. Temperatures weren’t taken properly, and reported symptoms were ignored by supervisors. The company “compensated” the workers with free t-shirts and boxes of chicken.

While Tyson and Sanderson Farms closed for two weeks, Pilgrim refused to shut down for even a 48 hour period for sanitation. The employees were forced to take on intensified work conditions as Tyson and Sanderson sent over their backstock to be processed while closed.

“Everyone is exhausted and they’re working us to the bone because evidently chicken is more important than our health,” a worker said.

Lufkin was unable to shut down Pilgrim due Trump’s order to keep meat processing plants open, despite outbreaks of COVID-19. This has been true across the state.

Ruling class forces workers back to the jobsite

Across Texas, workers, many of them Black or immigrants from Mexico and Central and South America, have been forced back to work at job sites that are unsafe and even deadly. But wherever there is injustice, there is struggle and fightback. Unions are helping workers to organize against bosses that only care about profits. Families are charging the meatpacking industry with the deaths of their family members.

Workers, especially those from oppressed nationalities, have always faced exploitation at the hands of capitalists. We, as socialists, know that these workers did not just become essential in the last few months. Meatpacking workers — and the entire working class — have always been essential. We make the world run, and we should run the world!

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