Last week’s closing of Smithfield’s pork processing plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota has put a spotlight on the dangers facing workers in the food supply industry. When it shut down, the plant had 644 confirmed cases of COVID-19 which makes Sioux Falls the number one hotspot per capita for the disease nationwide and represents nearly half of all confirmed cases in that state.
Meatpacking plants are dotted in small towns all over the Midwest where workers are overwhelmingly immigrants and refugees. While South Dakota is 84% white, 73% of all workers that tested positive are people of color.
“Leading up to this outbreak, they [Smithfield workers] were under significant physical and psychological stress, with sore arms, hands, and backs,” said Jordan Bruxvoort, director of the Naomi Project, a Sioux Falls workers’ and immigrants’ rights organization.
The psychological stress of COVID-19 has only exacerbated that, and people there do not feel that the measures taken to protect them have been sufficient. Now, my friends at this church are dealing with an overwhelming reality; 10 members of the congregation have been diagnosed with COVID-19, one of whom was the man from El Salvador who passed away.”
Conditions in South Dakota have impacted Worthington in Southwest Minnesota as well.
At a Friday daily COVID-19 press conference, Minnesota Governor Tim Walz indicated that workers at Smithfield also work at the JBS plant in Worthington, Minnesota. “There’s also a lot of family members that work in both plants,” Walz said.
JBS later announced the indefinite closure of the Worthington pork processing plant.
“We don’t make this decision lightly,” said a statement from Bob Krebs, President of JBS USA Pork. “We recognize JBS Worthington is critical to local hog producers, the U.S. food supply and the many businesses that support the facility each and every day.”
Prior to the closure on Friday, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) Local 663, which represents workers at a JBS plant in Worthington, were calling on management to slow production at the pork processing facility, reporting 19 COVID-19 infections among employees there.
“Production line speeds inside JBS and other food processing plants in Minnesota must be immediately slowed to make safe social distancing between workers possible,” said Matt Utecht, President of UFCW Local 663.
He warned, “Failure to make this critical safety improvement will put our community and our nation’s food supply at devastating risk.”
These problems in the food supply chain are extensive.
Smithfield has a long history of worker injuries and fatalities. The company often uses foreign guest workers, many of whom have reported abusive treatment.
In 2007, a number of guest workers from Thailand working in Smithfield plants reported slave-like conditions.
By Filiberto Nolasco Gomez, Workday Minnesota