Adult children of meat packers demand factories provide PPE and social distancing: NPR

Some US meat packing plants have become hot spots for coronaviruses. The children of meat packers are now speaking for their parents, demanding that factories do more to protect workers from the virus.


Meat packing plants have become coronavirus hotspots in the United States More than 40,000 meat packing workers have contracted the virus. The workforce is largely made up of immigrants and refugees, and they are often reluctant to speak out about unsafe conditions. Workers fear being made redundant or even expelled. Now their adult children are speaking out for them, demanding more PPE and social distancing. Esther Honig worked with Mary Anne Andrei to bring us this story from Nebraska.

ESTHER HONIG, BYLINE: In March, Maira Mendez started asking her father about the conditions of her job. Like, did supervisors hand out face masks?

MAIRA MENDEZ: He said, they give us masks. It’s like the beard net, but it is an integral net. And so that’s when I was like, it’s not going to protect you. You are still breathing air through these holes.

HONIG: Mendez says that’s when she started to worry. Both parents work in Smithfield, a huge pork processing plant in Crete, Neb. Smithfield says they provided workers with PPE as quickly as possible. But soon after Mendez started asking questions, the factory confirmed its first case of COVID-19.

MENDEZ: That’s when my dad started to get scared too. It was very like – it’s here. That is true.

HONIG: As the number of cases increased at the Smithfield plant, Mendez realized that it was up to her to do something. She is almost twenty years old and says that as a child of Mexican immigrants, she has stood up for her parents all her life.

MENDEZ: When they came to this country, they came just to provide for their families. They didn’t come, I guess, to change anything. That’s why you don’t see a lot of workers speaking out.

HONIG: In meat-packing towns of Nebraska and across the country, the advocacy work for basic protections like paid sick leave and PPE has been borne by the children of workers.

MENDEZ: Defending our parents is our responsibility.

HONIG: In America, packing meat is well known as hazardous work. But now the long hours and close quarters make plants susceptible to coronavirus outbreaks. Experts suggest spacing workers out or slowing production lines down, but Smithfield CEO Kenneth Sullivan argues this puts the country’s food supply at risk. Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts backed this claim and refused to shut down the factories.


PETE RICKETTS: We’re working really hard to make sure they can stay open as it’s vital to our food supply. Can you imagine what would happen if people couldn’t go to the store to buy food?

HONIG: Meanwhile, these infections are spreading throughout the community. Data from the Food and Environment Reporting Network revealed that rural counties that have meat packing plants with outbreaks have infection rates five times higher than the rest of rural America. Mendez feared that an epidemic might occur in her town, and she was not alone.

MENDEZ: I can’t remember who added us exactly, but someone started this group chat. It was a group chat on Facebook.

HONIG: The panel discussion consisted of children of meat-packing workers across the state who shared their parents’ stories of conditions in Smithfield. Together they decided to take action and quickly organized a group – The Children of Smithfield.

MENDEZ: We are a lot of girls who want to defend our parents.

HONIG: The group has grown beyond the core girls. They organized weekly protests – socially distant protests by car by car …

(sound excerpt from the horn)

HONIG: … Outside the Smithfield factory.

MENDEZ: People before profit.

Oh, I’ve never heard of a protest in Smithfield, and we’ve been there for over 18 years.

HONIG: When the number of positive COVID cases at the plant rose sharply, the company planned to shut it down temporarily. Then President Trump said he would issue an executive order requiring factories to remain open to ensure the country’s food supply. Smithfield officials turned the tide.

MENDEZ: When we told the workers something and they came back the next day, that’s when it opened their eyes.

HONIG: That’s when the workers joined the protests.

(sound excerpt from the horn)

MENDEZ: People before profit.

(sound excerpt from the horn)

MENDEZ: I felt happy. I was hopeful that maybe we could do something together.

HONIG: We contacted Smithfield. They wrote that our Smithfield family members are crucial to our country’s response to COVID-19. We thank them for keeping food on American tables. But the New York Times reports that U.S. meat packers, including Smithfield, exported a record amount of pork to China in April. Now, a US Senate inquiry is wondering if businesses have profited from the crisis. And after months of protest, Maira Mendez considers herself an activist.

MENDEZ: I have always been an advocate of what you believe, but I was not there. I wasn’t on the street with a poster or talking as candidly about this situation as I was.

HONIG: The children of Smithfield are now pushing for a law that protects essential workers in meat packing plants. Similar protests, also led by children of workers, took place in at least a dozen factories across the country.

For NPR News, I’m Esther Honig.

SHAPIRO: This report was produced in collaboration with the Food and Environment Reporting Network and Latino USA.


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