Meat companies get pressure from investors to improve working conditions
By Isis Almeida Bloomberg News
via Boston Globe - May 21, 2020
Investors are picking a new fight with the world’s biggest meat companies as coronavirus outbreaks sicken thousands of workers.
After tackling issues including the use of antibiotics, animal welfare, and climate change, investors are turning their attention to plants that have become virus hotspots. They want meatpackers to adopt recommendations they say will keep workers safe and mitigate reputational and financial risks.
The investors are urging the likes of Tyson Foods Inc. and JBS SA to take steps including enforcing social distancing, providing personal protective equipment, and opposing any federal or state policies that deny unemployment benefits or stimulus relief to staff that refuse to go back to work due to fear of being infected, according to a statement by the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility signed by more than 100 global investors.
More than 10,000 American meat workers have been infected with the virus, and at least 30 have died, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union estimates. Plant conditions — including difficulty maintaining distancing and adhering to heightened cleaning standards — increased risks for infections, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Major facilities were forced to close, tightening meat supplies and pushing up prices for beef and pork.
“The issues raised in this statement are longstanding engagement themes that weren’t created by — but only exacerbated by — the COVID-19 crisis,” said Nadira Narine, a senior program director at the ICCR in New York. “Companies are quick to publicly champion essential employees’ health and safety as a top priority, but workers on the frontline in the meat sector report feeling more expendable than essential.”
The pandemic has highlighted worker conditions at slaughterhouses, where cold, damp factories and crowded workstations make infectious diseases particularly hard to control. The jobs are also low-paying and provide few benefits, further underscoring how labor inequality is one of the most significant rifts brought to the fore by COVID-19.
Three weeks ago, President Trump signed an executive order to keep plants running amid the outbreaks. Since then, more than a dozen facilities have reopened. Union leaders and worker advocates have argued that maintaining production in spite of the outbreaks will lead to more infections.
Investors are also asking for increased worker safeguards, requesting companies to provide more protective gear, including “the most effective respirators available.” The money managers are also advocating to ensure testing is available and asking for an end to lobbying aimed at increasing factory-line speeds.
“If only these type of measures had been implemented early on, they would have resulted potentially in some lower output numbers for March and April but then you wouldn’t have had the big spikes in COVID-19 incidents,” said Peter van der Werf, senior engagement specialist at Robeco, a Dutch firm with $190 billion under management. Companies would probably also have avoided factory shutdowns, he said.