US poultry plant workers complain of intimidation after fatal chemical leak

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Meat plant workers who were injured and displaced after a fatal accident in the US last month are alleged to have been intimidated and offered limited medical care.

A liquid nitrogen leak at a Foundation Food Group poultry plant in Gainesville, Georgia, killed six people in January and hospitalised at least 11 others.

A coalition of organisers, attorneys and community members claims that, since the fatal incident, workers have been discriminated against and intimidated by the company while attempting to file compensation claims and obtain medical care.

Some workers had been asked to sign blank sheets of paper after returning to the plant to collect their belongings, according to a letter sent by the coalition to Foundation Food Group. The letter also claims the company is impeding employees’ access to healthcare.

“The company has received the letter. The company has not taken any action to intimidate employees or limit their access to benefits in any way,” a spokesperson for Foundation Food Group wrote in a statement to the Guardian.

Maria del Rosario Palacios, executive director of Georgia Familias Unidas, one of the groups behind the letter to Foundation Food Group, described the company’s response as delayed and negligent. “When you continue to push production over the lives of folks, that’s the choice point that connects this tragedy to the ongoing issue of Covid,” she said.

Hundreds of meatpacking and processing workers have died of Covid-19 since the pandemic began, and brought the dangers of the industry under renewed focus.

Familias Unidas – a mutual aid organisation for workers, which Palacios helped form during the pandemic – had been forced to pick up the slack left by the company after the 28 January incident, she said. The organisation had coordinated doctor’s visits and provided legal and financial assistance for plant employees.

In Georgia, the poultry industry is a $41bn (GBP30bn) business, with Gainesville at its centre. A chicken-topped obelisk stands in the town centre, declaring the city of 40,000 the “poultry capital of the world”.

The plant where the nitrogen leak took place was operated by Prime-Pak Foods, which became Foundation Food Group after a merger in January. The incident started on a processing line using an immersion-spiral freezer – a large, two-stage device that can process tens of thousands of pounds of meat every hour. The machine submerges chicken in liquid nitrogen at a temperature of -196C, before exposing it to recovered gaseous nitrogen.

Emergency vehicles outside the Foundation Food Group

The US Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board is investigating the accident. Last week it released an update that the plant had been experiencing “unresolved operational issues” with the line, which “appear to have resulted in the accidental release of liquid nitrogen”. The board also revealed that the line had been undergoing unplanned maintenance around the time of the leak.

Earlier this month, a congressional subcommittee launched an investigation into “widespread” coronavirus infections and deaths in meatpacking and processing facilities across the country.

The investigation is seeking information from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) – which, under the Trump administration, issued eight citations and less than $80,000 in total penalties for coronavirus-related violations at meatpacking corporations – as well as three large meat companies: Tyson Foods, Smithfield Foods and JBS USA.

About 87,000 meatpacking and processing workers have tested positive for Covid, according to the Food and Environment Reporting Network. At least 330 have died.

The US Department of Agriculture also recently withdrew a proposed rule that would have allowed some poultry facilities to increase their line speeds to 175 birds a minute.

Donald Stull, a professor emeritus at the University of Kansas who has studied the North American meat industry since the late 1980s, said these efforts fall short of fully addressing the systemic issues of safety and worker treatment.

“What Covid did was point out the real weaknesses in our food systems,” Stull said. “That’s encouraging. But at some point you know what the problem is and you have to do something about it.

“When Covid is in our rearview mirror, the problems in the meat plants in terms of their working conditions will continue. Until the industry changes its basic orientation toward the workplace, those problems will not go away.”

During its annual shareholder meeting last week, Tyson Foods, one of the largest US meat producers, rejected a due diligence proposal, filed by the American Baptist Home Mission Society and 22 others, asking the company to report and remedy any existing human rights impacts in its business activities, such as unsafe working conditions exacerbated by Covid, as well as anti-union and discriminatory behaviours.

“I have heard firsthand how Tyson is currently not protecting workers’ human rights,” Magaly Licolli, the founder of worker group Venceremos, said at the meeting as she presented the proposal.

“One would think that Tyson would provide workers, who Tyson once called ‘heroes’, with meaningful benefits and protections. However, Tyson has put profits before protecting workers’ lives.”

“We disagree with the implications raised in the proposal,” Tyson’s board wrote in a statement. “At Tyson, our top priority is the health and safety of our team members, their families and our communities.”

According to recent financial filings, the pandemic has cost Tyson $540m in lost production revenue, personnel expenses and paying for protective equipment and procedures. In 2020, Tyson reported revenue of more than $43bn, a five-year high.

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