Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Meat, Lies and Op-Eds

The American Meat Institute didn't take kindly to a Washington Post Op-Ed last month by Lance Compa and Jamie Fellner describing the horrendous working conditions faced by meatpacking and poultry workers.

Compa and Fellner, authors of a report by Human Rights Watch issued last January entitled “Blood, Sweat, and Fear: Workers’ Rights in U.S. Meat and Poultry Plants,” described "the cuts, amputations, skin disease, permanent arm and shoulder damage, and even death from the force of repeated hard cutting motions," the fact that the companies do little to prevent these injuries (even though solutions are well known) and the lack of government protections.

But J. Patrick Boyle, president and chief executive of the American Meat Institute, writing a response in the Post, claims that Compa and Fellner's article "bears no resemblance to the reality of today's U.S. meat and poultry industry, or to our documented and successful efforts to enhance workplace safety."

Now I'm all for "balance" in our newspapers, there are two sides to every story, yadda, yadda. But I would think that a news organ as respected as the Washington Post would at least insist on a modicum of truth when accepting a response to one of their op-eds. In this case, they failed miserably. Instead of a fact-based response, we have a commercial for the AMI.

So where's the beef? Let's look at some of the myths and facts.

According to Boyle,
  • It doesn't make good business sense to let workers get injured because "Each time we have to replace a valued, experienced employee, the cost of recruiting, hiring, and job and safety training for a new employee can easily exceed $5,000."

    Truth: I find this hard to believe, considering that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently reported that turnover in some plants can exceed 100% in a year.

  • The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports a 67 percent decline in total injuries and illnesses since 1990.

    Truth: This is probably the biggest lie. First, the 67% drop is based on a change in BLS reporting methodology which Boyle never mentions.

    Second, the data is based on reported injuries and there is massive underreporting of injuries, because immigrant workers are afraid they will lose their jobs or be reported to Immigration, managers refuse to report repetitive stress injuries as work-related, insisting that they happened because of the employees' activity away from work.

    Finally, the BLS data does not include the night shift cleaning employees, who do the most dangerous work, but are generally employed by contractors. Instead of being counted as part of the meatpacking industry, they're counted in the same industrial category as building janitors and hotel room cleaners. (This is the same problem that has been identified in the refinery industry.)

  • The United Food and Commercial Workers union estimates that it represents 60 percent of the red-meat-packing workforce, so the industry is clearly not anti-union.

    Truth: Something doesn't quite compute. According to the GAO,
    46 percent of workers in the meat products industry were union members, a figure that had remained stable since the 1970s. However, by the end of the 1980s, union membership had fallen to 21 percent. Declining rates of unionization coincided with increases in the use of immigrant workers, higher worker turnover, and reductions in wages.

  • Processers don't force employees to work at unsafe speeds. In fact, "line speeds are based on a thorough assessment by systems engineers that ensures that tasks can be adequately and safely performed by a worker in a prescribed time." And anyway, "Line speeds, as well as food safety regulations, are monitored and enforced by nearly 8,000 federal inspectors who are in plants at all times."

  • Truth: Check out the article below this and then tell me how safe the line speeds are. In addition, the federal inspectors that Boyle talks about are not OSHA or worker safety inspectors, they are Department of Agriculture inspectors who are concerned about the quality and safety of the meat, not the safety of the workers. According to the GAO,
    Line speed is regulated by USDA to permit adequate inspection by food safety inspectors. According to USDA, when the maximum speeds were originally set and when they are adjusted by the agency, the safety and health of plant production workers is not a consideration.
    Boyle knows this. He's just hoping Washington Post readers don't know this.
So what, according to Boyle is the root cause of the apparent dementia plaguing Compa and Fellner? The root cause of this distorted picture of the American workplace is apparently that too many of today's journalism and sociology students have been contaminated by required reading of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, "a moving fictional account of an immigrant's plight in a number of industries....It's a bit like relying on "Oliver Twist" for a picture of modern child care."

According to Boyle,
If Compa and Fellner can't accept the idea that we do the right thing just because it's right and we have a strong collective conscience, maybe they can believe that we do it because it's also financially beneficial and required by federal regulations. Either way, we are proud of our workplace safety improvements and committed to further progress.
So who's living in a fantasy land? In fact, listening to J. Patrick Boyle glorify the meat packing industry is a bit like listening to Donald Rumsfeld tell us that victory is right around the corner in Iraq.

The American Meat Institute and the Washington Post should be ashamed.