• NotH Team

Profit is Paramount, Safety is Second

Profit is Paramount, Safety is Second

The indispensable contribution of health-care workers to society has long been understood by the general public and is grudgingly accepted by governments when industrial disputes like the recent nurses strike make recognition of their status unavoidable.

Covid-19 has highlighted that, in the same vein as those traditionally understood to be “key workers”, society cannot function properly unless those working in food production are protected effectively, treated humanely and paid fairly.

As much as any other group of essential workers, those ensuring that we can continue to eat have been at the coal-face of the societal battle-lines which have been reinforced and exacerbated by Covid-19. The interests of food workers, and wider society, have collided with the interests of those who own the food companies – here in Ireland, workers across numerous different companies were forced to walk off the job before basic distancing measures were enacted, PPE and cleaning products have had to be squeezed out of employers at every turn while no more than a handful of employers have been forced into recognising the herculean efforts of their staff by increasing workers’ miniscule share of the huge profits raked in on the back of the recent changes in how people buy food.

It has been obvious from the onset of this crisis that employers across every sector of industry view their workers’ lives, and the lives of the families they return home to after shifts, as expendable in the pursuit of profit, with many introducing only the bare minimum of measures in order to satisfy the almost useless statutory obligations placed by the state on businesses who have remained open. Moreover, the barely existent legislative requirements placed on employers have demonstrated that when faced with a choice between protecting people and protecting capital, ‘free market’ states will always choose to facilitate capital. On picket lines, many food workers said that if the animals faced the same conditions as were faced by people, the factory would be closed down. It has only been where there has been a strong union presence combined with effective collective action where workers have been able to secure significant advancements on health & safety matters and pay.

At the time of writing, some food companies are still requiring their workers to clock-in using fingerprint scanners, refusing reasonable changes to their facilities to take account of the risk they pose to workers’ lives. It remains commonplace for changing rooms and locker rooms to be full to capacity and numerous employers have explicitly stated that production will not be slowed in any way to protect workers’ lives. In addition to the brazen-faced arrogance which we have come to expect from employers, it has become abundantly clear that the statutory agencies who are tasked with ensuring that workplaces are safe have bent the knee to capital and will ensure the continuance of business at all costs. The fact that they are refusing to physically inspect workplaces at this time tells us all we need to know about their priorities - they prefer to take at face value feeble explanations from employers by email than investigate what workers and their unions tell them is taking place on the ground.

Workers around the world have hardly fared much better. Numerous meat processing plants across the USA have been forced to close as a result of huge spikes in confirmed cases of Covid-19 among their workers – by the middle of April 2020, upwards of 5000 workers at USA meat conglomerates had contracted the illness, while at the end of that month, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union reported that up to 17 food workers have died after contracting the coronavirus. Workers in the States echo what is heard at home – “we are very close, we can’t social distance at work, we’re working on top of each other”.

In addition to the employers’ prioritisation of production and profit over proper distancing measures, those American workers are so badly treated that many feel unable to take time off work, even when experiencing symptoms, as they have no proper sick-pay scheme and would be forced into poverty if they miss work as a result of illness. There are echoes here of the SSP scheme, which only guarantees people a payment of £95.85 per week when out of work through sickness – how many people have ended up sick because poverty and fear forces people to continue to work when ill? Reliance on the SSP scheme is almost ubiquitous among food production plants in this part of Ireland, even in companies who rake in literally billions in profit each year. When this crisis has passed, companies who outsource their responsibilities to the public purse should be viewed the same as tax-dodgers and treated accordingly.

When over-crowding is so pronounced in Irish meat plants which hold just a few hundred workers, one can only imagine the conditions in Brazilian super-plants where thousands of workers are employed in the same factory. JBS SA, the world’s biggest meat company, was forced to close one of its poultry plants which employs 2600 people after an outbreak struck down 20 of its workers. The conditions in Brazil mirror what we see in meat factories across Ireland – long hours, in unsanitary, dangerous conditions for very little pay. One of the perverse defining features of how Covid-19 has taught us how to determine who is an essential worker is pay – it seems the less a worker is paid, the more integral their role in keeping our society functioning is. Shop assistants, cleaners and food production workers all rank among the lowest pay brackets and yet have been uniformly hailed as indispensable – shouldn’t a person’s wage be determined by their contribution and their employer’s ability to pay? Hopefully the esteem in which most people have held frontline workers for the last 6 weeks and the public displays of gratitude to workers formerly routinely described as “unskilled” will ensure that it will no longer be accepted as justifiable when employers pay poverty wages to those without whom society would collapse.

The recent consolidation of the worldwide meat sector into larger employers and larger plants has created a perfect storm in which more and more workers are crammed in factories cheek by jowl, with decreased market competition resulting in there being no immediate impetus on the employer to reduce the danger to workers’ lives while also potentially resulting in meat shortages if those same conditions force wholesale factory shutdowns.

Just days ago (27/04/20) the chairman of the biggest US meat Company, Tyson Foods, echoed warnings from JBS SA and Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork producer, that people may see shortfalls in the availability of meat in supermarkets and restaurants if disruptions in supply continue. Yet again, the corporate focus is not on their responsibility to introduce measures to ensure that food workers remain safe but the negative impact on ‘the market’. The callous disregard which has been shown by bosses for the safety and lives of the people who make our food should never be forgotten.

And yet their arrogance has unwittingly revealed the power held by these supposedly “unskilled” workers. If the supply of meat around the world is so easily and quickly affected by plant closures, a thought which clearly terrifies ‘consumers’ and employers alike, what best way to use that power to ensure the improvement of conditions? How interlinked are the supply chains and what pressure can workers and their unions apply to secure better terms of employment? It would be an interesting exercise for the unions who represent food workers to look at the feasibility of co-ordinated action across different countries and different continents.

All of these struggles outlined above can be boiled down to a single line – “Profit is Paramount, Safety is Second”. Collective actions and strong union density have forced some employers into considering the impact of factory conditions on their workers but far too many workers remain unorganised, exploited and at risk. There is apparently no impetus on the statutory agencies to close unsafe workplaces and so, the job of protecting workers’ lives falls yet again only on the shoulders of those who are willing to stand up. When we exit this crisis, there can be no going back to the poverty pay, cattle-herd nature of food production. We must no longer accept the term “unskilled” which has been used to legitimise keeping workers poor, and just as society has awoken to the fact that our communities cannot function properly without the efforts of cleaners, shop workers and bus drivers, we must also force the Beef Barons to recognise that essential food workers, on whose backs they have built their vast fortunes, will no longer allow themselves to be treated worse than the animals they process.

By guest contributor, Padraig Mackel (Follow)

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