Harsh working conditions in US poultry and meatpacking plants violate human rights, OAS Commission to review the claim

Civil rights groups filed a petition today with the Organization of American States’ (OAS) Inter-American Commission on Human Rights asserting that the U.S. government has failed to protect poultry and meatpacking workers from permanently disabling and life altering work-related injuries and other abuses.

“The United States has not acted with due diligence nor has it taken proper steps to prevent abuses of meatpacking and poultry processing workers’ human rights, and is inasmuch violating the rights of workers in the poultry industry through its negligence.”

The petition was filed by the Midwest Coalition for Human Rights, Nebraska Appleseed and the Southern Poverty Law Center.  The organizations have examined and written about the harsh working conditions in U.S. poultry and meatpacking plants, including their reports “The Speed Kills You,” and “Unsafe at These Speeds.”   Workers are forced to keep up with the “punishing speed of processing lines,” and expected to make as many as 20,000 cuts per shift.  The petition notes:

“The work speed is so unrelenting that it has resulted in workers urinating and defecating in their clothing while working on the line because employers deny reasonable bathroom use, violating workers’ rights to dignity.  …The policies, practices and attitudes shown by employers and supervisors in the industries result in serious physical and mental harm to meatpacking and poultry processing workers, preventing them from reporting injuries or drawing attention to unsafe working conditions.  Furthermore, many workers in this industry are recent immigrants to the United States and face additional economic and social pressures that increase their vulnerability in the workplace.”

A copy of the petition was also sent to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack and Undersecretary for Food Safety Elisabeth Hagen.  These senior Obama Administration officials have proposed changes to the poultry slaughter inspection system which would allow line speeds to increase substantially and put workers at greater risk of injury.  In an accompanying letter to the USDA officials, the civil rights groups write:

“As the agency currently regulating line speeds and considering a new rule that would dramatically increase line speeds for workers and for food safety inspectors, we urge the USDA to consider workers’ basic human rights to occupational health and safety as it continues to make rules directly impacting workers.”

The petitioners ask the OAS’ Inter-American Commission on Human Rights Commission to:

  • Declare that the United States implement work speed and ergonomic regulations that will permit meatpacking workers to perform their duties in a safe environment that does not expose them to serious and life-changing injuries.
  • Issue a statement concerning the working conditions in the poultry and meatpacking industries which addresses the gap in worker protection, and the need for mandatory ergonomics and work speed regulations, and more effective enforcement.
  • Convene a hearing to allow the petitioners and the victims an opportunity to formally present the allegations made in this petition.