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The Sacrificed Food Workers

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I’ve talked plenty about the impact of COVID-19 on food workers. Already some of the worst treated workers in America, no one cared about them until those conditions could affect consumers. And finally people paid attention, probably up to the precise moment that COVID is under control and not a second longer.

Living conditions for farmworkers have always been abysmal and they haven’t improved much over the decades. Because they move around, farmers have no incentive to build anything more than the bare minimum and because these workers have little power and are often undocumented, sometimes those living conditions are well below the bare minimum. COVID has been whipping through the farmworkers of Florida and now they are moving north to harvests up the east coast.

That farmworkers essential to the economy were vulnerable to infection has been evident for months. In Washington State, labor unions tried to get bunk beds banned in farmworker housing. Regulators let the bunks stay but put other rules in place last month to try to ensure physical distancing.

Despite the known risks, it took many weeks for a coordinated public health response to take shape in Immokalee. Doctors Without Borders, the nonprofit organization that usually deploys to poor and conflict-ridden parts of the world, arrived in April to help at the request of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. Its roving testing site has twice set up at the flea market off Main Street, with its outdoor clothes racks and taco stands.

“We’re also still a little shocked that we’re here,” said Jean Stowell, who oversees the organization’s domestic coronavirus response team, which has embedded in the Navajo Nation, New York and Puerto Rico. “We knew that migration was an issue in the U.S. that would expose people to vulnerability. We knew that they would struggle to get care.”

Basically, the nation doesn’t care if these people live or die so long as there are tomatoes on the table in January. Not surprisingly, the poor conditions of farmworkers in COVID are leading to more organizing, including in Washington.

On a crisp May morning in Washington’s Yakima Valley, Blanca Olivares took her break from sorting apples at the Allan Brothers packing facility a little early. Soon, five other workers joined her in the outdoor patio area. Together they waited, disappointment creeping in when more didn’t follow. Little by little, however, employees trickled out. Within the hour, 40 to 50 people had congregated, and the first in a string of labor strikes that would include hundreds of workers at seven fruit packing facilities in the valley had begun. “I didn’t know anything about strikes,” Olivares said, through a translator. “I just knew that if we all put our voices out there, then maybe they would listen to us.”

The labor actions — catalyzed by frustration over inadequate protections and compensation during the COVID-19 pandemic — swiftly grew into a protest against industry working conditions in general, according to Rodrigo Rentería Valencia, an anthropology professor at Central Washington University and member of the Washington State Commission on Hispanic Affairs, who chronicled the strikes and interviewed dozens of workers. The strikers held out for weeks, their fight demonstrating the nascent power of the region’s agricultural workers and the challenges they face in having their concerns heard.

Yakima’s first case of COVID-19 was reported on March 8. Rumors swirled, but little solid information emerged about the spread of the virus within workplaces. Employees at fruit-packing plants, who are predominantly Latino, feared the virus could spread rapidly in the close quarters of sorting and stamping lines. Their concerns were justified: According to the Yakima County public health department, as of early June, more than 800 agricultural industry workers had tested positive for the novel coronavirus, accounting for nearly one-fifth of the more than 4,000 cases in the county. Twenty-nine of them worked at Allan Bros.

And look, it’s not like it’s gotten any better in the meatpacking plants. Take this example from a Pennsylvania chicken plant.

About a dozen Bell & Evans workers, their relatives, and community leaders say the company sometimes prioritizes efficient production over employees’ health. Workers who contracted the virus were pressured to return before they fully recovered, these sources say. And some employees believed they were still contagious when they went back because they tested positive a second time days later, several people said.

The allegations of management insensitivity recall those in a recent federal lawsuit brought by a worker who said her supervisor forced her to stay on the de-boning line after she injured a shoulder so badly that she needed surgery.

At the same time, the company is grappling with a salmonella problem that has worsened since January, when federal food safety inspectors first detected unsafe levels of the bacteria in Bell & Evans’ ground chicken. The most recent testing shows that Bell & Evans is the only poultry processor in Pennsylvania with high levels of salmonella in two products, ground chicken and chicken parts.

Inspectors routinely test meat for salmonella because it sickens more than one million Americans yearly. But a key court ruling that classified salmonella as a naturally occurring bacteria prevents the government from taking action against companies with bad ratings.

Bell & Evans did not respond to numerous calls, texts and emails seeking comment.

The company’s most recent public statement, posted on its website June 1, did not mention the latest death of a Bell & Evans employee — Agapito Martinez, who the local coroner said died from COVID-19 at age 70 days earlier. Instead, the statement said there had been no new coronavirus cases for several weeks.

It’s unclear how many Bell & Evans workers have fallen ill, because the company and the state are keeping their tallies under wraps. Employees say Bell & Evans won’t tell them either. A new bill authored by a state lawmaker aims to make those records public.

The real kicker–this is a major supplier for Whole Foods.

When you have an industry that supplies an unsafe product, you almost always also have an industry that treats its workers horribly. And that is absolutely the case with meatpacking. For that matter, it increasingly seems that there was never a meat shortage in the U.S. due to COVID. Rather, the meat companies wanted to focus on exports and were more than happy to sacrifice workers to make that happen.

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