The following is a special Facing South report on work at Smithfield Foods, the meat-processing giant with its main pork plant -- the largest in the world -- in Tarheel, N.C. Earlier this month, Smithfield -- already the country's largest hog and pork producer, and fifth-largest beaf producer -- bought out ConAgra Foods Inc. for $571 million cash, making the company the largest turkey producer in the nation.
AT SMITHFIELD, WORK HURTS
Workers, scholars and others voice alarm at dangerous conditions at the massive meat processor - and how little state and federal officials are doing to help
By Sandy Smith-Nonini and Sarah Weaver
October 13, 2006
FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. - Like anyone who's worked at a job for 10 years, Quincy Harvey had some stories to tell. But Mr. Harvey worked at the Smithfield Packing Plant in North Carolina, so his stories were more gruesome than most.
There was the time he accidentally stuck a knife through his hand - but had to wait 45 minutes and take a urine test before plant personnel took him to a hospital. Another day, while he was changing clothes, a block of 14 lockers that were not secured fell and pinned him, injuring his legs. The company said the incident would not be considered work-related.
Finally, after six years of cutting whole hog carcasses down the middle with a 100-pound "split saw," Harvey developed a torn rotator cuff in his shoulder, which required surgery. Again, company officials told him that the injury wasn't job-related. He was fired after 13 weeks on medical leave.
Mr. Harvey joined nine other current and former Smithfield workers at a press conference and "speak out" in early September to tell their story about life inside the company's massive plant in Tarheel, N.C. The stories are eye-opening, and beg the question -- where are the government regulators tasked with protecting workers on the job?
Speaking in Fayetteville and Raleigh, workers and their allies painted a picture of a company that routinely attempts to deny workers' compensation after accidents, where workers are occasionally fired after being injured and the company-run health clinic fails to adequately care for workers hurt on the job.
Where is OHSA?
At the Raleigh event, Libby Manly, a spokesman for the UFCW, which has been organizing workers at the plant, showed reporters a bar chart of injury rates documented by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). The OSHA data showed a 32 percent increase in injuries from 2003 to 2005, followed by an even steeper jump in 2006. During the first seven months of this year, 463 injuries had been reported, which surpassed the total for the entire year of 2005 at the Tar Heel plant, where 5,500 employees slaughter 32,000 hogs a day.
Lenora Bailey spoke at the Fayetteville event about being fired for missing work after suffering an injury to her hand requiring surgery. She said that she was fired, despite having a doctor's excuse saying she was not ready to resume work.
"I need to feed my family. They stopped my insurance. I lost my home," said Bailey. "We need someone to speak out for us because we are afraid to speak up."
Another Smithfield worker, Guadalupe Valdez, described being unable to do basic tasks such as picking up a gallon of milk after suffering work-related injuries to her hand that required two surgeries. She recounted months of struggling to get plant personnel and the company clinic to acknowledge and treat her pain. Eventually, Valdez also was fired.
A tarnished record
The testimonies come in the wake of a 2005 Human Rights Watch report called "Blood, Sweat, and Fear," which found systematic violations of worker safety rules in U.S. meatpacking plants, including Smithfield's North Carolina operations. The report found that dangerous working conditions and underreporting of injuries is widespread in the industry.
Thirty years ago, meatpacking plants were located in the North, and were largely unionized, but in the 1980s companies began relocating plants to states with laws that were hostile to unions and recruiting large numbers of immigrants into their workforces. Faster production lines were one outcome of this industry-wide restructuring.
Several politicians and academic experts on a panel at the Fayetteville event called on the state and community groups to put pressure on Smithfield for increased corporate accountability for plant conditions.
Catherine Fisk, who teaches at Duke University School of Law, blamed OSHA, the federal agency charged with enforcing worker safety laws, with failing to address the problem. She said that it is difficult for workers to provide sufficient proof of injuries under the current law, and that fines for serious violations are too low to deter corporations from future safety violations.
Marion Crain, of the University of North Carolina (UNC) Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity, called the workers' situation a public problem.
"It costs all of us when workers are hurt," she said. "The company's lack of respect for workers scares and worries me."
Workers won't wait for government
Crain called on Cherie Berry, the N.C. Commissioner of Labor, to appoint an independent committee to investigate health and safety in the plant. She also said that more state and federal inspectors need to be hired to enforce safety and health laws.
After the Human Rights Watch report came out in early 2005, the N.C. Dept of Labor commissioned a study of conditions at Smithfield. The state found 45 serious violations, but fined the plant only $23,514 - a penalty that "pleased the state and Smithfield Foods, but concerned others," according to an Aug. 24, 2005 report in the Raleigh News and Observer. In 2003, a worker died at the plant when he was overcome with toxic fumes while cleaning a tank; Smithfield was fined only $4,323.
N.C. state Rep. Rick Glazier agreed with the call for a state investigation. He pointed to increases in production line speed as a major cause of worker injury, and said he had asked Smithfield for data on how the company's practices compared with other plants in the industry.
"Why the increase from 24,000 to 28,000 to 32,000 hogs per day?" asked Glazier, who said he is still waiting for more data from Smithfield. "Is it not worth a cut in the production level to prevent workers from being injured?"
Other experts expressed doubt about the regulatory process. Steve Wing, a professor at the UNC School of Public Health, noted that one of the problems in looking to the government is the history of generous campaign contributions from Smithfield that have corrupted the political system. Several of the injured workers who spoke seemed also to have given up hope for regulatory reform: They said they had come to believe that struggling to win union recognition was the only way to make changes at the plant.
Crain also spoke of government failures, noting that in North Carolina "the hogs have better representation than the workers." She called the state's labor laws "a disgrace," and spoke out in favor of "card check" agreements. These are less contentious alternatives to union elections, which have tended to be disputed and end up in drawn out hearings before the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Two previous UFCW elections at Smithfield, in 1994 and 1997, were disputed for years and eventually thrown out by the NLRB, which found the company guilty of intimidating workers and interfering with the vote.
In a card check agreement, a company recognizes a union and allows it to organize, in return for assurances from the union that workers will avoid major job actions such as strikes. The UFCW is currently seeking such an agreement with Smithfield. The company has offered to cooperate with the UFCW in holding a new election, but has not agreed to a card check.
Representatives from Smithfield Foods attended the Fayetteville event, but the company declined an invitation to send a representative to speak on the panel.