An extended interview with Axel Fuentes, Rural Community Workers Alliance.
by Saulo Araujo and Joao Fonseca
Animal protein is an important part of the diet of billions of people around the globe. The workers in processing plants, however, are making these products available to consumers at the expense of their own health. They suffer chronic pain daily due to the highspeed repetitive motions they must maintain while working on the lines. Serious injuries are not uncommon under these working conditions, and now the workers are contending with the spread of the COVID-19 crisis. WhyHunger reached out to its ally, the Rural Community Workers Alliance (RCWA) in Missouri, a worker-led organization focusing on workers’ rights and community action, to check in on our colleagues and the workers they accompany. RCWA’s Executive Director Axel Fuentes worked for years in meat processing plants before helping to create the organization that provides legal and logistical support to workers from meat processing plants.
Our interview with Axel spotlights the serious threat of COVID-19 to food processors and the industry of meat processing itself – a story that faded all too quickly despite the ongoing challenges to those who are essential in moving food from farm to plate. The reports and news articles that came out in June helped to mobilize politicians and public health experts and resulted in the shutdown of a few plants. Because meat became scarce on supermarket shelves, people paid attention. Imagine if those reports had also included stories about the conditions for the workers at these meat processing plants?
The rich content of this interview with Axel might change your views and your diet. Food processing workers and their families are still among the most vulnerable to the ravages of this pandemic. Many find themselves in a situation where they must choose between going to work in a place where the virus is spreading at a high rate or leaving their job to face losing their homes and their ability to provide food for their families. In Part I of this 2-part interview with Axel Fuentes, we will learn about the ways in which this pandemic has threatened the livelihoods and lives of workers at meat processing plants. In Part II we will learn more about the general conditions for those immigrants working in the meat processing plants.*
*This interview was edited for clarity and length.
PART I: Workers on the front lines
WhyHunger: Thanks for taking the time to speak with us. Can you introduce yourself and your organization?
Axel Fuentes: Thank you for inviting me to do this interview. My name is Axel Fuentes. I am the Executive Director of the Rural Community Workers Alliance. We are in Milan, Missouri and we organize meat industry workers so that they can improve their working conditions, and also to gather and learn about any needs these workers may have in the communities where they live. Our organization was founded at the end of 2013 – beginning of 2014 and we focus on working with immigrants and people under the refugee status because they are the groups that are most vulnerable.
WhyHunger: The crises at the meat processing plants was for a time getting a lot of attention at a national level, but that seems to have faded and it’s hard to find information on what’s happening. Can you give us an up-to-date explanation on what’s happening with workers?
Axel: At the majority of the meat processing plants, the working conditions were always tough, poor conditions, and the plants always had the reputation of not prioritizing the health and safety of their workers. Specifically, in the plant we have here in Milan when the pandemic arrived, and even after it had gotten here (I’m talking around April or so), the company kept going — business as usual –as if nothing was happening. They were not taking any precautionary measures. They were not taking any additional measures to ensure the workers were not getting sick or infected with the virus.
And so, within our alliance the workers were expressing their worries: worried about what to do, worried for their life, worried for their health. And so the workers reached out to management through a written letter requesting basic necessities, i.e. masks — asking for social distancing practices so they could be distant from each other on the ground floor and in the cafeteria and asking as well for the company to take responsibility if one of the workers fell ill because the company refused to send the workers to quarantine. The company ignored all the petitions from the workers. They continued normally — without even a pamphlet with information for the workers — and the workers were very worried. They ignored the workers, so there was no option left but to seek legal methods. Following the workers’ request, we proceeded with suing the company. In that lawsuit, there was no request for financial compensation. It was solely to ask the plant to take precautionary measures so the workers would not get infected. We won that legal action and the court demanded that the plant take precautions. Since then the company has begun to implement social distancing between the workers in the cafeteria and on the floor, adding plastic to divide them, taking workers’ temperatures and offering them a bonus which has resulted in workers choosing to continue to work despite the chance that they may be compromising their own or their co-workers’ health and safety.
But even up to today, the plant refuses to separate the workers on the work line. On the work line they continue to work all together, shoulder to shoulder.
They took very minimal precautions in the dressing rooms. Due to the short amount of time that workers have in the morning to get their equipment on, it gets crowded very quickly in the dressing rooms and this is something that the plant has not tried to find a solution for. Besides that, the only other thing the company has done is put together this team of observers, we call them COVID-observers, which are the same people — workers — which are responsible to disseminate [information] to the groups. They do keep an eye on enforcement of social distancing, but if the workers all have to use the dressing rooms and they all have to get to the work line, all these workers are going to stay close together.
Another thing that plants have not done is reduce the speed on the work line. They did the opposite. They did not replace the workers that are in quarantine so the workers that remain are being overworked because they are taking on the work of the ones that are not coming in.
The production levels of these plants continue to be huge. The plant here in Milan continues with the same level of production even though they have a lot less people working because they have been sent to quarantine or because they have symptoms. So now the workers are working a lot more — a lot more. They don’t even have time to wipe their sweat!
The workers use masks, but now imagine this issue: the masks are being soaked with sweat due to the high level of activity these workers are performing. And so imagine a mask completely wet, and folks are breathing their own sweat and almost drowning and they are not providing masks regularly. So this is a very serious issue that plants are not addressing. They have also provided a plastic face shield, but this plastic gets foggy from the breathing and people cannot see as well — it reduces their visibility. And so now they face the risks of cutting their hands, or cutting the hand of another worker, because they have less visibility.
Workers have been complaining to the HR departments, but the plants have basically ignored them. We have records of workers’ complaints that the plants have done nothing to address. The workers have tons and tons of meat to process and they must keep going. The companies haven’t even stopped their evaluation systems [that are based on giving negative and positive points to workers]. The negative points are given to workers that are not able to continue to work due to having symptoms, and the workers continue receiving negative points.
In the Milan plant, specifically, when you get up to 9 points the worker can lose their job, if they accumulate in a year. And the worker does not have the right to get sick. If a worker is not feeling well, he cannot miss work because it could negatively affect his performance and accumulation of negative points. The company’s policy says that if you have COVID-19, they will not use this system. But the issue is that there is not enough testing being done, so you can’t prove it was COVID. If the person is suffering from symptoms and does not have a way to do a COVID test, there’s no way to prove it.
In these plants the majority of workers on the work line where the meat is cut, are minorities –Hispanics and African immigrants — and the company doesn’t care about them. Recently, a case of discrimination was filed but the complaint was also dropped. Currently, a worker is completely unprotected and without a specific place to make a complaint. Not OSHA, not one place that is currently enforcing anything. The worker is completely exposed without any responsibility from the plants. The plants continue operation totally responsibility-free towards the workers, even workers that had the virus and had side effects due to the virus.
Part II: Sweating it out into the meat for three meals a day and a roof
WhyHunger: Axel, the people in many parts of the US are not aware of the realities faced by the plant workers so I thank you for this information. Can you describe the routine of the workers and who they? Are the shifts 8 hours long?
Axel: Yes, the workers– at the Milan plant specifically — the majority are Latinos and Latinas from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Colombia and Ecuador. And currently a number of workers are African immigrants from Congo, Senegal, Guinea and Tanzania. We also have a few workers from the Philippines, specifically in this plant. I could say that about 75% to 80% of the workforce in this plant is composed of Latin Americans and Africans. 25% or less are from the local surrounding areas of Milan.
In regards to the routine, sometimes they work 8 hour shifts but the majority of shifts are 10 hours, and during the pandemic they are also working close to 12 hours oftentimes from Monday to Saturday. They have one day off, although there are some periods where they will rest Saturday and Sunday as well, depending on the level of production. In the plants, the routine is basically this: One person is assigned one job and they do that job during their entire work shift during the entire year. This is why there are many injuries due to the repetitive motions, because you are always doing the same thing, the same, same, same, same thing all day. If for example someone’s job is to cut loins, that is their job all day, cutting loins with the same motions. There is no time to rotate, they do not have time to go to the bathroom, even though workers have made complaints about that. I personally know of workers that have had to defecate and/or urinate in their pants because they were denied permission to go to the bathroom.
After the complaints [about not getting bathroom breaks], the plant initiated an annotation system that basically means if workers want to go to the bathroom they have to write down the hour when they want to go but often times no one checks the notes for about 40 minutes to an hour after they wrote down the request, and the person sometimes just can’t hold it.
Basically this system that the company came up with was only so that they could say: “Look, we did give you permission to go to the bathroom, look here are the notes where you wrote your names” but in reality the workers are not being allowed to go to the bathroom. Sometimes they are waiting for an hour and the worker cannot move from the position because if they do, they will be reprimanded. They will be given a warning, and if you get 3 warnings – you lose your job.
It is not permitted for a worker to leave their position in the work line because then they are accused of abandoning their post. I have accounts from workers that have said they have to wear diapers. They say: “This is very embarrassing to admit but we have to wear diapers because I can’t go.”
There are folks that have told me that they stop taking their medication during the day because they don’t want to drink water because if they drink water they will need to go to the bathroom. So it is very common to see workers in these plants having urinary tract infections due to the lack of drinking water — plus all that they are sweating out — and so folks also have many rectal issues. Now, if the person is standing all day in the same spot, they are not being rotated, they are practically doing the same thing every day and they are sweating a lot. And so they tell me they feel bad for the people that are going to eat the meat because all this meat is getting hit with sweat, because the sweat is dripping on it, there is no time for the worker to grab a towel and wipe it off.
Workers told me about instances when the meat comes down the line with abscesses and the workers sometimes – due to the highspeed – cut into it. And what happens is that the pus gets on the platform. In theory, what they were supposed to do is to stop the line and clean [the platform] and disinfect it.
But due to the speed at which the meat is coming [down the line], the workers cannot stop the line because it will delay it and so all they can do is wipe it with their hand and wipe it off. It does not get cleaned properly and so there is also not much being done in terms of food safety.
The workers know this and when they are asked how we can avoid this they say that the solution is to slow down the speed of the line because it goes so fast that sometimes they don’t even have time to put the knife in the machine. They have to use the knife with their own hands and, due to this, I have heard stories of folks that have cut themselves, sometimes all the way to the bone because there is not enough time to put the knife on the device.
Due to the [repetitive] movements they make all day they have ruined their muscles, they have ruined their tendons, and when the worker wants to make a complaint that he has suffered an injury the company does not want to take responsibility. Once I heard a story about a lady that injured her shoulder and the company’s lawyer said: “Well, this is a repetitive movement that you do at home, when you are cooking or when you are cleaning your house”. The companies never want to accept that the person is getting injured during work because these are gradual injuries. It’s not like when you cut a finger, it’s completely different. I have many stories of folks that have injured their hands, their shoulders, their wrists, their back, their feet. Due to standing still for so long, some folks have swollen feet or their wrists.
WhyHunger: If a worker right now is working 12 hours a day, there’s no rest. There’s no way to go to the bathroom, there is also a lack of paid vacation. What are the wages? An estimation?
Axel: It varies from plant to plant, but I believe at a national level it is at around $12 hours an hour. There is another group that is even paid less and exposed to similar risks — that is the cleaning crew. They also work in the plant and clean the plant during the night. These workers are also exposed to breathing all the vapors and chemicals that they use to clean, and they get paid less than the workers on the production. These workers, at least here in Milan, get paid around $12 per hour, but in many plants they are paid minimum wage and this is a very dangerous job because they have to sometimes operate the machinery.
I have seen many of these workers with mutilated hands or fingers, or with severe cuts. They lack the training on how to operate the machinery. They tell me the plant just tells them to work, and they have to figure out how it all works on their own. This happens as well on the working line, especially now that there is a lack of labor. They will take anyone and put them to work without the proper training. So, this is when we see accidents happen. There is also this issue — sadly — that currently there is not a contract or regulation on what treatment a supervisor must give the workers. There are many instances where supervisors are spiteful, aggressive and very arrogant. The only thing that’s missing is the supervisors using whips on the workers. This is the reality because many workers complain of this “work, work, work!” and using obscene language. But there is no law that prevents and protects the workers from these acts. The only thing that we saw in the past when we wanted to archive a complaint with the Commission on Human Rights is that they ask if it is an act of discrimination, but it is not because these supervisors are treating everyone equally bad. They say: “Since it’s not an act of discrimination we cannot proceed with this complaint”. But there is psychological abuse and, in some instances, physical abuse, and the worker does not have a place where they can complain. When they go to Human Resources, they don’t do anything. Folks go to HR to complain and they continue to be ignored.
WhyHunger: What is the average age of the workers? And is there any number of cases of abuse against young workers and women? Do you have information on this?
Axel: Yes. Age-wise I would say that the major age group working in these plants is between 20 and 45-50 years old. There are adults working there that are older than 50, but those are only a few. It is common to see in these plants that they want people that have the energy to work. When they see someone getting older and losing their energy, they accuse them of achieving a low performance. I met workers that worked there for years — like 10, 12, 15 years — and when they get to a certain age the plant gets rid of them. They say: “You’re not doing your job as well anymore.” And they fire them.
WhyHunger: And how long does a worker last in this type of work?
Axel: A worker can last many years. I would frame the question this way:
“How long does a healthy worker last?” There is a big difference there because, through the stories that I’ve heard –I have been listening to these workers for 12 years — and I believe 90% of the workers are suffering from an injury or illness that is related to work, mentioning again the injuries to the repetitive movements.
There are people that have little balls on their hands or wrists, so they are not healthy. There are some that no longer have nails from the years of scrubbing oils and fat, and they continue to work. And like this they will continue to work for many years. But a healthy worker? I believe that one healthy worker that begins working at one of these meat processing plants — the maximum they will work fully healthy is only about 6 months. After 6 months I start to see that they already have pain and issues due to the work. And I continue to say this mostly comes from the repetitive work motions and the speed of the chain line which currently has nothing in place to regulate the speed and safety. Sometimes they say that the USDA regulates the speed of the chain, but that is only if the product, the meat, has some serious anomaly but the reality is that the speeds of these chain lines are too high. And then, it is the plant that decides at which speed to work by, it is not the worker or government institutions because they have nothing to regulate this. This is only by what the company wants. There are no regulations.
WhyHunger: This is an unhealthy and violent work environment. Are there any cases women were able to put forward?
Axel: Yes, there have been sexual harassment accusations. And, sadly, oftentimes the person does not want to take legal action because they are afraid of losing their job and because it is difficult –especially for women — to be able to present evidence that the harassment took place. Usually managers and supervisors take advantage when there are no other workers in the area to assault women, they wait for them to be alone. I’ve heard stories of where they tell me the managers would offer a job to a family member if they were to sleep with them. And I would ask them: “Okay and was there anybody else there when this happened?” And they say: “Well, no. We were alone”. It becomes very difficult to prove these accusations. This is the highest barrier that women face if they want to take legal action, because it is hard to prove. It usually happens when they are alone, and it is prohibited for workers to bring their phones into the work line so they can’t record anything that happens.
WhyHunger: Within this framework that you have explained, what do the workers think? And what do they plan on doing to improve these conditions?
Axel: Here, the only option is to organize… for the workers to get together and organize. There is no other option. Because governmental institutions have gotten weaker, there have been no actions that governmental authorities have taken to protect the health and safety of these workers, and this is how the workers feel. This is not a personal opinion. This is based on what they have expressed to me. They feel totally unprotected by government institutions. There is no option left besides the workers organizing. But there is one factor that makes organizing difficult: the plants will take retaliation against the leaders or against the folks that want to organize.
Obviously, the plants will never say not to organize. They always claim that it is legal to organize. And we motivate [the workers] a lot to do this, to organize. We motivate them to lose that fear, and we teach them the tools to organize. But the companies also have their own strategies that make it hard to go against them. They will never say that they are firing the worker because he wanted to organize or because he is sharing material that informs the workers of their rights. No, they will find excuses to fire them like “the worker was not doing the job well” or they will find a way to put pressure on the worker. They will create pressure and start claiming that these workers are insubordinate to their supervisors, or create such pressure that the workers will resign. And these are all methods of retaliation.
Here’s an example: Recently a worker was putting in complaints about the speed of the chain line and that [the plant] did not allow for his wife to go to the bathroom. What did the plant do? The superintendent would approach her more often to check on her work and would claim she was letting pieces of meat pass by and would give her warnings. Or, because the lady had to go to the bathroom, after she waited for an hour and no supervisor came to let her go to the bathroom and she could not hold it anymore, she said that she had her period. So, they gave her a warning for that, too. So, they are starting to make it easier to say: “You abandoned your post, and this is why we are firing you.” But it was really because she made a complaint and she was also telling her coworkers that this was one of their rights — to go to the bathroom. This is how they add pressure and these folks end up being fired. This makes it hard for workers to organize or raise their voices.
Another example is that these meat plants have power over a lot of local institutions. Actually the other day someone was telling me — because we were trying to get people organized on this COVID-19 issue– he said to me that he was afraid to join because he was afraid that the plant would not allow for his son to play on the basketball team because one of the supervisors is also the coach of the team. So, these plants govern the whole community.
WhyHunger: Any final comments you would like to make, or any comments on anything we did not have a chance to share here?
Axel: I think that as a final comment I would like to say to the consumers –my message is before they buy a packet of meat at the store that they do research to know what’s behind that packet.
Because there is also human blood and sweat from the hands of workers that are unprotected [in that packet], that are discriminated against, that are being poorly treated, and the consumer must know that.
And that the consumer should maybe prefer buying locally, from plants that process and package locally produced meats., Because they exist, they just don’t have the production capacity of these major producers that day after day invest in eliminating the smaller producers. I believe that we must have a conscience as consumers: Where do your products come from? Can I buy a product from a place where the workers are much better treated?
To learn more about the Rural Community Workers Alliance and how you can get involved visit www.ruralcommunityworkersalliance.org.