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April 14, 2020

US poultry sector faces union criticism over Covid-19

The US poultry sector's "delayed response" to coronavirus is "leaving most workers unprotected", a trade union representing thousands of workers across the food industry.

By Dean Best

The US poultry sector’s “delayed response” to coronavirus is “leaving most workers unprotected”, a trade union representing thousands of workers across the food industry has warned.

The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) claimed “the poultry industry as a whole is getting it wrong” on safety standards, claiming “too many workers have already been infected and are suffering the consequences”.

In response, trade association The National Chicken Council has insisted its members take “very seriously our responsibly to keep workers safe while providing protein for families”, with a spokesperson arguing the industry “began increasing efforts to protect workers even before the virus started spreading more than a month ago”.

The RWDSU has claimed two of its members who were employees at a Tyson Foods facility in the US state of Georgia have died after contracting Covid-19. The union said “many” other staff are “sick or in quarantine”. just-food has approached Tyson for confirmation the employees have died.

Reports in the US have also said an employee at the US arm of Brazilian meat giant JBS has succumbed to Covid-19.

There has been no confirmation about where the three staff were infected.

Speaking to Bloomberg, JBS said its employee had not been at work since 20 March, adding he did not display symptoms while at work.

“The RWDSU represents workers across the entire US supply chain, including food processing at iconic American household brands like Quaker Oats, General Mills, Post, Gerber and Coca-Cola, to name a few. Outside of the poultry industry, those companies seem to be getting it right with a few outliers, ensuring workers have the space they need, premium pay, and PPE,” the union said in a statement.

Stuart Appelbaum, president of the RWDSU, sought to draw an alleged distinction between the equipment given to management and production staff.

“We are in the middle of a pandemic. The poultry industry can and must do better to swiftly protect workers. It is outrageous that managers have had masks and other protective equipment for weeks while workers, who work elbow to elbow every day, don’t. Saying you are still scrambling for protective supplies when much of the supply chain has been protecting workers for weeks is a pathetic excuse for companies that make billions in profits annually. While some facilities are putting up barriers now, too many workers have already been infected and are suffering the consequences.”

Mike Brown, the president of the National Chicken Council, said: “Our members are following all of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local health department guidelines, and many have consulted with infectious disease physicians to develop site plans.”

He pointed to “many additional measures” companies have implemented “to keep workers safe”, included increased cleaning of equipment and greater frequency of hand-washing for staff, as well as “heightened screening” of employees “for any signs of illness, including temperature checks before entering the plant”.

Brown added: “Since the US government has deemed food manufacturing as critical infrastructure, we treat very seriously our responsibly to keep workers safe while providing protein for families. The essential critical industries working to care for, feed, and protect Americans are selflessly serving the nation by showing up to work during this time of crisis. While the work of our public health professionals, first responders, and public safety employees is unquestioned, we must also adequately recognise the service of food industry workers who protect our food security. NCC is urging Congress to support food industry workers in any aid package that might be considered when Congress returns in late April.”

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