Meatpacking: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO)

moving on

for our main story tonight we're going

to talk about a product that is wildly

popular in this country but instead of

telling you what it is

i'd rather show you an ad for it i

promise if you have never seen this

commercial before

you will never guess what it's for mom i

think

chubby's been drinking too much milk

sometimes you just don't feel like

cooking so i've come up with new purdue

entrees

fresh complete entrees ready in under

three minutes well

that took a turn and what exactly does

jim perdue

think he's doing there that family

doesn't need one of your shitty frozen

meals

they need someone to expel the literal

devil from their demented guinea pig

perform an exorcism gym or get the

out of their house

the point is our main story tonight

concerns meat

it's what i technically am to any animal

above me on the food chain like a bear

or a tiger or if we're being totally

honest a medium aggressive pigeon and if

you're thinking okay

i know where this is going this is going

to be a grim story about the conditions

animals face in factory farms

you're actually wrong those conditions

are horrific but they do get talked

about a lot

this story is going to be about the grim

conditions humans are facing

working in meat packing facilities if

you ate meat today

it probably went through one of them and

meat packing is a highly consolidated

industry

roughly 85 percent of beef production in

america is controlled by these four

companies and more than half of the

chicken industry

is controlled by these four their

employees are extremely important

to this country's food supply and to

hear companies like tyson tell it

they're important to them on a personal

level too

we've all got the same end goal in mind

protect our team members

they're our most valuable asset they are

our family i said

earlier that we're a food company but

we're a family and that's genuinely how

i

feel and how we operate okay if tyson's

workers are their most valuable asset

than their workers are by definition

not family because let's be honest

nobody's family is their most valuable

asset if you're gonna rank everything in

life by how much you value it it goes

number one your phone

number two food water and shelter number

three judy dench she's a

treasure

and then and only then your family

that's

just an empirical fact but second it's a

little hard to take tyson's

workers rr family talk given this

stunning allegations made against

managers at this tyson pork

processing plant in waterloo iowa one of

the first to shut down when the

coronavirus raged

uncontrollably in the spring a

supervisor allegedly taking bets on how

many would catch the virus

according to the allegations the plant

manager of the waterloo facility

organized a cash buy-in winner-take-all

betting pool for supervisors and

managers

to wager how many employees would test

positive for coveted 19.

holy that betting pool might be the

most disgusting thing

ever created in a tyson factory which is

frankly saying something given that

tyson also makes

ranch flavored chicken chips a snack one

customer reviewed online with a note

disgusting i gagged in front of my child

that review is on tyson's actual website

now tyson fired seven managers at that

plant after that incident but it does

speak

to a larger problem in this industry

because while companies

have put out endless press statements

about the expense they've gone to to

protect their workers during this

pandemic

workers themselves dispute those claims

heavily and

they've been hit hard as of february

18th at least 57

000 meatpacking workers have contracted

the virus and at least 280 have died

but the broader truth is that the

treatment of workers in this industry

has been very bad

for a very long time so tonight let's

look at them and let's start

with how plants operate most feature a

series of long conveyor belts with

workers

packed closely along the line chopping

deboning or trimming fat

often at breakneck speed maximum

allowable line speeds in poultry have

actually

doubled since 1979 with workers

reporting averaging

35 to 45 birds per minute that is less

than two seconds

per bird that's fast in the time it's

taken me

to explain line speeds to you a plant

could have processed

five whole birds and look there's plenty

of activities that should only take two

seconds

checking the time clearing your throat

determining the worth of a total

stranger by how much you want to

them

hey i get it but safely butchering a

chicken

probably shouldn't be one of them and

thanks to this relentless pace

meatpacking workers have reported it can

be hard to take a break even to go to

the bathroom

which may explain stories like this this

is security camera video given to our

sister station from the smithfield

production line in virginia

in the video you see the employee in

front take off his gloves

company officials confirmed the man

relieves himself

under the production line then puts his

gloves back on and continues to work

the worker at the center of all this has

been suspended pending the outcome of

the investigation

that is disgusting well yeah it is

the combination of urine and pork is a

bit upsetting

it's one of the many reasons i have no

interest in seeing miss piggy's sex tape

but it is not just that that man

urinated under the production line is

that he was put in a position

where he may have felt like he had to

that is actually a problem

across the meatpacking industry oxfam

released a report

detailing exactly how grim conditions

can be for poultry workers

with one detail in particular that hit

this local michigan talk show

hard poultry industry workers are put

through such extremes that they're

denied bathroom breaks

many wearing diapers during their work

oh my goodness

i know that people need jobs and they

need to be employed but

to have to stand in your own stuff

yeah while you're working my mind is

racing while you're sharing those

details and thinking surely this is not

in our country

okay i get the shock there i really do

but the thing is

this is totally our country we live in a

nation

where hundreds of thousands of homeless

sleep on the streets people have to

launch gofundme campaigns for medical

treatment

and where george zimmerman can auction

off the gun he used to kill trayvon

martin a horrific story which by the way

your show actually covered in this

segment directly before that one so you

guys

have been doing a pretty good job of

showing how up this country can

be

and it's not just bathroom break issues

meatpacking has some of the highest

rates of occupational injury and illness

in the country in fact

in a recent three year period a worker

in the meat and poultry industry

lost a body part or was sent to the

hospital for inpatient treatment

about every other day and a lot of this

is down to

dangerous working conditions plants are

so crowded

a common injury is a cut from your

neighbor's knife

and those rapid line speeds can

exacerbate other problems such as

repetitive stress injuries like carpal

tunnel syndrome all of which

can leave workers feeling pretty

disposable i mean you got two thousand

homes an hour going through you're

covered with blood

feces urine it's easy to get hurt down

there

you're doing that same movement for that

same piece of the hog

and it's non-stop you know basically you

treat it as a human

machine look that is clearly terrible

nobody should be treated like a machine

unless of course

it is a fun machine like an immersion

blender i'd love to be treated like an

immersion blender you want me to stay in

a comfy drawer most of the day and then

occasionally

come out to robot a soup yes please

look at this point you might be

wondering how do companies get away with

treating their workers like this well

many strategically locate their plants

in areas with few other job

opportunities and

target vulnerable groups like former

prisoners refugees and especially

immigrants

for hiring roughly 175 000 immigrants

work in meat packing jobs in america

they understandably may be wary

about complaining to authorities about

mistreatment so

many workers are already operating at a

deep disadvantage on top of which

companies have been able to minimize

accountability by gaming the system for

instance

they are required to report serious

injuries to the government's worker

protection

agency osha but there is a simple way

around that

because you actually don't have to

report those injuries if

treatment stays at a first aid level so

what do you think happens

well as a gao report found plants simply

offer first aid treatments on site

rather than refer workers to a doctor

that same report found even workers with

severe injuries like fractures

weren't sent to doctors with one worker

who developed a muscular skeletal

disorder

making over 90 visits to the company's

nurse before being referred to a

physician

and the workers know the game that is

being played here

there's a nurse but she doesn't do

anything for you for example

when our arms hurt all she did was apply

bengay ointment and

sent us on our way it's not even worth

going i needed to see a doctor but they

refused me

and i asked i told him well can i go

down to see my own

orthopedics my own specialist my own

doctor they said if you do that we're

gonna fire you

look there are lots of good reasons to

fire someone

frequent absences poor quality of work

because they get a little racisty on

ambien

but wanting to see a doctor really

should not be one of them

and it's worth noting if you do have a

severe injury it can be very hard to get

relief

in theory you can apply for workers

compensation programs under which

injured workers lose their ability to

sue but in exchange

can get money to cover medical treatment

and lost wages the thing is

those programs are run at the state

level and paid into by companies

who've lobbied hard both to hollow those

benefits out

and make them harder to get just before

texas overhauled its workers comp system

back in 1989. one poultry ceo beau

pilgrim

tried to personally influence

proceedings in a pretty blatant way

senator bob glasgow of stephenville says

he's never been offered a blank

ten thousand dollar check not until east

texas chicken king bo

pilgrim strutted onto the senate floor

wednesday senator hugh palmer of fort

worth says pilgrim then slipped him

either a bribe

or an illegal campaign contribution well

i didn't think he was trying to give me

a christmas present i'll tell you that

yeah of course he wasn't because

christmas presents aren't typically used

as bribes

that is unless you're a child of divorce

here it is billy

a full-size motorcycle just like you

asked for i think you should have it and

if your mother doesn't

well that is on her she's a difficult

woman billy

and look just a quick word about beau

pilgrim here he co-founded a company

called pilgrim's pride and blank checks

to legislators

aren't even the most shameless thing he

spent money on during his life among

other things

he had this 37-foot bust of his head

installed next to one of his

distribution centers and

added this second statue underneath it

depicting him reading a bible

to his pet chicken henrietta he also

built this

hellacious mansion which locals referred

to as cluckingham

palace and which included among other

atrocities this absolute nightmare of a

bathroom that fittingly

has the exact colour scheme of a raw

chicken breast and

this nauseating foyer featuring a

painting of what appears to be

two peacocks above some chickens

while a perverted owl

just watches and it wasn't just bo

pilgrim fighting workers comp laws tyson

has taken a lead in pushing for

changes in workers comp in state after

state which have made it harder for

workers hurt on the job

to receive payments in fact in texas it

is now possible

for companies to opt out of paying into

workers comp entirely and essentially

write their

own rules for how much workers get for

their injuries

tyson does exactly that and when workers

get injured in their plants there

in order to get medical care from the

company they must first

sign a document saying they voluntarily

release waive and forever give

up claims arising from their injuries

now could you not sign that

sure but then your best bet to pay for

medical coverage

is to sue the company and that could

take

years and while texas does now have a

law giving workers 10 days

to consider signing the waiver before

then they could actually be pressured on

the spot

at another company an employee who'd had

both of his hands

crushed was persuaded to sign a waiver

with a pen

held in his teeth and look i know that

this all sounds

very bad and it does imply that

companies like tyson

don't care about the physical well-being

of their workers but that's actually

not true because they do seem to care

very much

about the physical well-being of some of

their workers

employees at tyson fresh meets corporate

offices in dakota dunes are getting out

from behind their desk

all right looks good guys and into a

healthy routine

every tuesday and thursday we offer an

on-site fitness class for any employee

who wants to come

we focused on stretching at your desk a

lot of us sit at a desk a lot of times

so even just getting up and stretching

just that little bit of movement

throughout the day helps too we had a

workshop on meditation

last week and it was pretty good

clearing your mind and relaxing

stuff you can do at work you know what

it's true

meditation is great for clearing your

mind you just have to

sit still focus on your breath and try

not to think about the local camera crew

that's filming a piece about your

corporate office culture that will one

day be uncomfortably juxtaposed with how

appallingly your company treats workers

in its factories now

are those thoughts going to creep into

your mind sure but just acknowledge them

and return to your breath namaste

now clearly the contrast between tyson's

corporate offices and their plants is

stark almost as stark

as the disparity between their salaried

workers over 73

of whom are white and their hourly

workers over 60 of whom

are black asian or latino it's just a

fun fact i'm throwing in there

for no particular reason now ideally you

would want the government to step in and

remedy some of what you've seen

unfortunately osha is woefully

understaffed

as of last april its number of

inspectors had dropped to a 45-year low

in fact

at current staffing levels it would take

osha 165

years to inspect every workplace under

its jurisdiction

and even on the rare occasions that

inspectors

do get to visit the plants the limits to

what they're allowed to do once they're

in there

can be genuinely ridiculous in the

southeast where

a huge proportion of the poultry

industry resides

there is actually a lawsuit that has

successfully prevented osha inspectors

from doing broader searches in poultry

factories

even when they know workers are getting

seriously injured

in one case an inspector was told to put

a box

over her head so she wouldn't see any

safety hazards in the plant

if she wanted to walk through the plant

to investigate a fire

okay not to state the obvious here but

put a box on your head

is not an instruction you give when

everything is up to code it's just

inherently suspicious right this way

inspector now if you'll also just please

plug your nose and spin around three

times

we can begin the tour and even when osha

finds violations their power to do

anything

is incredibly weak in 2019 the average

fine for a serious safety violation a

hazard

where there is a substantial probability

of death or serious physical harm

was just over thirty seven hundred

dollars meaning

it can genuinely be cheaper for

companies to run an unsafe plant and

occasionally pay those fines

than for them to provide a safe work

environment and

all of this came to a head last year

when the pandemic hit

companies corporate workers immediately

worked from home because it wasn't safe

for them to be in the office

but the plants were kept open despite

the fact

as you have seen it's nearly impossible

to socially distance on a line and when

workers

entirely predictably then started dying

the federal response was

characteristically weak after six

workers from a jbs plant in colorado

died from kobed

the company's total fine was just

fifteen thousand dollars

and for the family of saul sanchez one

of those workers

that understandably didn't sit well saul

sanchez worked for the company for

nearly three decades and never called in

sick a single time

he was the first jbs worker to die of

coven 19

and his family says his funeral costs

more than the fine this company is now

facing

it's a huge slap on the face and they

bring in over 50 billion dollars

a year and they get slapped with 15 000

that's what enables these companies to

not care

for their employees yeah exactly

that fine amounts to point zero zero

zero zero

three percent of jbs's profits last year

and if you find a company a fraction of

a percent of their profits

don't be surprised when they carry on

only giving a fraction of a about

the welfare of their workers

now legally i have to tell you jbs

claims that that fine and the

government's finding that they fail to

protect their employees from exposure to

covid is

entirely without merit not only that

they are even fighting the claims for

workers comp survivor benefits

from saul sanchez's widow and others

who've lost loved ones their argument

being

that the coveted infections were not

work related

although to be honest that's a hard

argument for them to land

given that the outbreak got so bad there

at one point they had to shut the

plant down

so what can we do here well at least for

the duration of the pandemic

osha should implement a federal

emergency workplace standard giving meat

packing workers

the right to social distancing and other

protections longer term

that agency needs to be rebuilt and

strengthened and it can't stop there

the usda should do more to ensure lines

move at safe speeds

and when it comes to workers comp we

should be setting a baseline

for what states have to offer because

otherwise the race to the bottom

will just continue and all of this has

to be done quickly

because things are critical right now

remember that tyson plant with the

winner take all betting pool

as of mid-december more than 1500

employees there

contracted the virus and eight died so

if tyson truly is

a family like they love to claim it does

seem to be

a pretty dysfunctional one and

when you take

all of this together the diapers the

endless trips to the nursing station

the injuries and the deaths you frankly

only need to take a peek inside the way

this industry currently operates

to draw a pretty simple conclusion that

is disgusting

yeah it is it really is


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