The Smithfield Foods plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, one of the largest pig slaughterhouses in the United States, is now a top hotspot for COVID-19 cases.
The plant has shut down indefinitely as hundreds of its employees have fallen ill with COVID-19. More than 700 of the plant’s employees have tested positive, as have more than 120 nonemployees who had contact with workers. Cases among plant employees account for at least 40 percent of all confirmed cases in South Dakota.
A Smithfield spokesperson blamed the outbreak on workers. “Living circumstances in certain cultures are different than they are with your traditional American family,” she said.
Smithfield agreed to shut down the plant only after the city’s mayor implored the company to take action to protect workers. Before the closure, dozens of workers were testing positive each day. At first, Smithfield agreed to close the plant’s doors for a mere three days, but as cases skyrocketed, the mayor urged a longer-term shutdown.
A plant worker’s widow blames Smithfield’s negligence for her husband’s death, the first associated with the plant. “I lost him because of that horrible place,” she said. “Those horrible people and their supervisors, they’re sitting in their homes, and they’re happy with their families.” Her husband, Augustin Rodriguez, was 64 and worked at the plant for nearly two decades.
As is the case at many U.S. slaughter plants, most of the Sioux Falls plant employees are immigrants. And like all slaughterhouse employees, they had been exposed to severe hazards even before COVID-19 struck. Slaughter plant workers—often low-income people of color who cannot find work elsewhere—regularly sustain a wide range of physical injuries, from carpal tunnel syndrome to dismemberment, due to dizzying slaughter-line speeds and other unsafe conditions. They also suffer higher rates of several psychological problems, including anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
In addition to these chronic conditions, daily exposure to chemicals, dust, and bacteria known to cause respiratory problems among slaughter plant workers may make them more susceptible to COVID-19.
Across the country, workers are calling for greater protections and are even staging walkouts. “We’re not getting nothing—no type of compensation, no nothing, not even no cleanliness, no extra pay,” said a worker who led a 50-person strike at a Georgia chicken plant. “We’re up here risking our life for chicken.” Despite these pleas, meat companies are failing to offer workers needed support. Several other slaughter plants have closed or reduced their operations due to COVID-19, but only after dozens of employees fell ill.
Slowing slaughter line speeds could help protect workers from the virus—and reduce animal suffering. Disturbingly, however, despite the risks high-speed slaughter lines normally pose to workers, the USDA has increased the number of waivers for line-speed limits in slaughter plants—11 in the past two weeks alone—a move that further endangers workers, animals, and public health.
Such neglect of their employees’ health and safety in the midst of a global crisis is further evidence that Smithfield Foods and other giant meat companies are willing to exploit the most vulnerable for the sake of profit.
Now the pork industry is saying they will have to kill baby pigs unless they receive a federal bailout, since they are slowing down and closing slaughterhouses due to COVID-19. Similarly, the chicken industry does not have enough workers to slaughter and process chickens, so they are starting to kill chickens en masse at farms. A common method of mass killing is covering the birds with foam to suffocate them, which can take up to 4.5 minutes.
Join us in demanding taxpayer money be kept out of the mass killing of chickens and pigs and used instead for long-term, systemic solutions, like helping farmers transition to plant-based farming. Take action now at MercyForAnimals.org/NoSlaughterBailout.