For the first time, Human Rights Watch has issued a report that harshly criticizes a single industry in the United States, concluding that working conditions among the nation's meatpackers and slaughterhouses are so bad that they violate basic human rights.
The report, released yesterday, echoes Upton Sinclair's classic on the industry, The Jungle. It finds that jobs in many beef, pork and poultry plants are so dangerous as to breach international agreements promising a safe workplace.
It says meatpacking's injury rate is more than three times that of U.S. private industry overall: 20 injuries per 100 meatpacking workers in 2001, against 5.7 in all industry.
It describes plants where exhausted employees slice into carcasses at a frenzied pace hour after hour, often suffering injuries from a slip of the knife or from repeating a single motion more than 10,000 times a day. It tells of workers' being asphyxiated by fumes from decaying matter, of legs cut off, of hands crushed.
"Meatpacking is the most dangerous factory job in America," said the author, Lance Compa, who teaches industrial and labor relations at Cornell University and is a former union organizer and negotiator. "Dangerous conditions are cheaper for companies, and the government does next to nothing."
The industry dismissed the report's conclusions, noting that the number of reported injuries was declining and saying packing companies did their utmost to make their plants safe.
J. Patrick Boyle, president of the American Meat Institute, called the report "replete with falsehoods and baseless claims."
It focuses on Tyson Foods for poultry, Smithfield Foods for pork, and Nebraska Beef.