Expert: Pandemic revealing labor exploitation as in US slavery period
By Jorge Ignacio Perez
Undated personal photograph showing Ricardo Salvador, a Mexican scientist who heads the Food and Agriculture Program of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). EFE/Ricardo Silva /Editorial Use Only/No Sales
By Jorge Ignacio Perez
Miami, May 27 (efe-epa).- The coronavirus pandemic has revealed the existence of a "portion of people who exploit workers as was done during the period of slavery in the United States," said Ricardo Salvador, a member of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), in a reference to workers at US meat processing plants.
"They're exploited workers. They don't have insurance and infect their neighbors. It's a desperate situation," the Mexican scientist who heads the UCS Food and Agriculture Program, said in an interview with EFE.
The UCS is a non-profit entity founded in 1969 by scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Salvador pointed to companies that are "quoted on the stock market," especially the giant meat processing firm Tyson Foods, as being responsible for this state of affairs.
"The productivity of the (meat processing) factories depends on the speed of production. Thousands of workers have to be glued to one another cutting up the (animal's) body, in a confined environment," he said.
The SARS-CoV-2 virus "is transmitted via aerosol. This combines with the fact that, in the plants where they cut up cattle, temperatures are low and favor the virus," Salvador said.
According to recent figures, at least 17,700 cases of Covid-19 and 70 deaths have been reported among workers at 216 meat and food processing plants around the US.
UCS statistics show that the current average among the meat processing firms is 82 infected workers per company, and these people "could produce 2,300 additional infections in a community in just 12 days," according to the "basic reproduction number" (known as R0, or "R naught") for the coronavirus, a value reflecting the speed with which a pathogen spreads among the population.
UCS scientists are using the map of the Food and Environmental Reporting Network (FERN), a non-profit entity based in New York, to make their estimates, and this map indicates that there could be high levels of coronavirus infection "from coast to coast."
By states, Salvador mentioned that "the main incidence" of the disease - the industry hotspot, in other words - is presently in Iowa meatpacking plants, where there are 2,452 confirmed coronavirus cases, although there are just 545 available intensive care unit beds in local hospitals there.
After Iowa comes Nebraska with 1,677 confirmed Covid-19 cases, Indiana with 1,258, Minnesota with 1,097, South Dakota with 877, Wisconsin with 593, Kansas with 417 and Delaware with 336.
According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a Washington-based think tank, 51.5 percent of the workers in the meat industry are immigrants because they are the only people willing to take such physically demanding jobs.
But Salvador said that in actuality between 75-85 percent of the workers are immigrants, most of them Mexicans and Central Americans.
According to the UCS scientist, many of these workers "continue working out of economic necessity."
Salvador said that his team of scientists, engineers and economists is focused "more on solutions than on criticism."
Thus, they have recommended the passage of Bill S.3677 in Congress, a bill to require the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to promulgate an emergency temporary standard to protect employees from occupational exposure to the coronavirus and for other purposes.
The bill was presented last week by Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin.
"The public has to communicate with their (legislative) representatives," said Salvador, who was named a "Latino Innovator" by NBC television in 2013 and a year later received the James Beard Foundation Leadership Award.
He said that immigrants play the "most important role of everyone" in the US food chain.
In moving through the processing chain "from the whole cow to the steak or the bacon we see in those ... packages in the supermarkets, there has always existed this class of exploited people at one end of the food chain. If we subtract them, the system crashes," he said.
Last April, the JBS meat processing firm in Greeley, Colorado, halted production after a 78-year-old Hispanic worker died after contracting the coronavirus.
As a result, the Consumer Brands Association (CBA), the industry group to which most US food companies belong, asked the government to act to ensure that workers would be protected and could continue supplying supermarkets around the country.
Salvador said that the fact that President Donald Trump issued an executive order forcing the meat industry to continue operating "is a big problem."
"Trump is urging the country to recover and the news and figures documenting these infection levels are not being well received," he said.
"Under normal conditions, the industries would inform the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), but in this case, for political reasons, they've decided that they're not going to provide that data," the researcher said.
In spite of that, some aspects of the situation facing workers at the meat processing plants have become public knowledge.
"Investors took notice that the workers could sue (the companies) and began selling their shares, and this resulted in a decline in value of one-third in the stocks," he said.