The disposable US workforce: life as an ‘essential’ meatpacking plant worker

Workers are still waiting for reforms to an industry in which 60,000 got Covid and nearly 300 died


by Aaron Nelsen, The Guardian (UK)

Nov 19, 2021


Cactus, Texas / Jose Tovar believes he can pinpoint the day he got Covid-19: it was 8 April 2020 and he was cutting chuck bone at a meatpacking plant in Cactus, a little town in the Texas panhandle.


Cactus might be a small place, but if you regularly eat beef in the US, at one time or another, it very likely came from the JBS meatpacking plant here, where Tovar was one of its 3,000 workers.


The day he caught Covid, Tovar remembers that the man working next to him on the line was visibly ill. Just two days later Tovar, an immigrant from the northern Mexican border state of Coahuila, was short of breath and had a fever.


Company management refused to share the health status of his coworker, Tovar recalls, and he was told it was up to him if he tested for Covid-19. He tested positive the next day, and went into quarantine.


At one point in the initial weeks of the crisis, supervisors at the Cactus facility instructed workers to use hairnets, rather than masks, to cover their nose and mouth, according to Tovar. “It was absolutely ridiculous,” said Tovar.


At the time, it didn’t occur to him that he would have to fight so hard to prove that he caught Covid at work, or that in the coming weeks hundreds of his co-workers, and their families would be infected. Or that meat plant workers would be hit so hard by the pandemic that representatives would liken their experience to that of a “disposable” workforce.


The human costs are still being fully comprehended. Last month a House subcommittee report found that workers at the leading US meatpacking plants experienced cases and deaths that were up to three times previous estimates. For Tovar and many other workers the early response by the big firms was key, and indicative of longterm, systemic concerns about safety.


The World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a pandemic in mid March last year, and Texas’s governor classified its spread across the state as a disaster. Yet, for nearly a month, JBS did not do enough to protect its employees at the Cactus facility, many of them low paid refugees or migrants, according to interviews with workers, union leaders and experts...


... Worker representatives recalled that when some people brought masks from home, human resources ordered them removed. “JBS was concerned that people were going to get scared or excited [about mask use],” said Celestino Rivera, the United Food and Commercial Workers union representative for the Cactus plant.


Asked about its response to the outbreak, JBS said it “aggressively” prioritized health and safety through a range of steps to keep the virus out of its facilities as early as February 2020. It said that to instruct workers to wear hairnets as opposed to masks would have been a violation of company policy...


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