In the past week there has been an increase in alarm with the number of new COVID-19 infections growing in Victoria in numbers not seen since mid-March. The numbers are still extremely low if we look at other countries – for example the hotspot councils of Moreland and Hume had 26 and 51 active cases respectively early last week. However, the number of new infections in the state increased by 75 on Sunday June 28, the highest since the peak in April, illustrating we cannot be complacent.
The current clusters have not involved meat processing plants or abattoirs – in fact Victoria has seen just one such outbreak: at Cedar Meats in Brooklyn in early May.
This edition’s OHS Matters looks at why abattoirs and meat processing plants seem to be particularly prone to outbreaks of COVID-19 around the world. Some of the figures are staggering – and the cases continue, despite more being known about the virus and why such outbreaks might occur.
In May there were reports from Europe, the US and Canada of large outbreaks in meat processing plants. Countries such as France, Spain, UK, Ireland and even Germany, which has to date had record lows in numbers of deaths, all reported meat works related outbreaks.
In the US, by mid-May over 5000 meat workers had contracted COVID-19. Yet, with panic regarding adequate meat supply for American BBQs, in a typically cavalier move, Trump invoked the Defense Production Act in late April to reopen infected slaughterhouses and meat processing plants and to make sure they stayed open irrespective of whether workers were infected or not. By late June, we got reports that the number of meat workers with COVID-19 had increased to more than 24,000, with at least 91 fatalities.
In Germany, which seemed to be on track in terms of recovery, more than 650 people tested positive for the virus at a meat processing plant operated by Tönnies Group in Gütersloh, in mid-June. By last week that number had increased to over 1550. When the outbreak was first identified, the government closed the plant as well as schools and childcare centres in the area. Then last week as the numbers grew, it announced that restaurants, bars and gyms in the Gütersloh district would close for a week. Outdoor gatherings of more than two people are again prohibited.
Many of the workers in the German plant come from Romania, and live in shared accommodation – another risk factor once the virus has entered a population. Last month, Germany agreed a proposal banning the use of temporary workers at abattoirs following a spate of infections – but clearly this has not been enough.
So - why are we seeing these outbreaks in meat processing plants? Simply put: poor working conditions and poor pay.
Conditions: The common wisdom seems to be that abattoirs are cold and damp, making them ideal for the virus to thrive. Yet according to the Victorian branch of the Australasian Meat Industry Employees Union (AMIEU), this is too broad a description. Some areas in abattoirs, such as the ‘boning rooms’ must be cold. Other sections, such as the ‘kill floor’ are hot and humid.
Proximity: In many meat processing plants, workers have to work very close to each other. Depending on the workplace set up, the processes and work flow can make physical distancing impossible. This is certainly the case in the US where most of the places are non-unionised and workers are literally shoulder-to-shoulder, working much less than one metre apart. In Australia, there is more distance between workers, due to the efforts of the union. The push for distancing predates the COVID-19. Rather, it was to minimise the risk to workers’ safety in a process where the standard tools are knives and cleavers.
Particularly in the USA the work is stressful – even during ‘normal’ times, the industry has an appalling OHS record, with many workers suffering serious injuries. The workers are low paid, often temporary or labour hire workers and work long, gruelling hours, sometimes 12 hour shifts – again in un-unionised workplaces. And because they are not permanent, they are less likely to speak up or not go to work if they have any symptoms. They are less likely to have sick pay. In addition to all of this, there are often cultural and/or language factors as well.
A BBC investigation into one of the early outbreaks in the US, at a pork processing plant in Smithfield, South Dakota, in early April, found that the workers were classified as being ‘essential’, and like other ‘essential’ workers in many countries, their pay scale is lower than the average job across America, in some cases by significant margins. The workforce at Smithfield was largely immigrants and refugees from places like Myanmar, Ethiopia, Nepal, Congo and El Salvador. There are 80 different languages spoken in the plant. Estimates of the mean hourly wage range from US$14-16 an hour.
Once again, however, the situation is not as dire for such workers in Australia because where the sites are unionised, the conditions are better because the Health & Safety Representatives are active. The work is hard, repetitive and difficult and HSRs regularly argue that workers should not be working 10-12 hours.
Let’s look in some detail at the one meatworks related outbreak we have had. The Cedar Meats outbreak, in April/May of this year, has accounted for 111 cases of COVID-19 (workers and their contacts). In comparison to the numbers we have seen in Europe and the Americas, this is tiny.
About half of the workforce at the largely non-unionised site are labour hire workers. A worker was diagnosed with COVID-19 in early April, but Cedar Meats states that it was not informed of this. On April 23, a worker suffered a traumatic injury, was taken to hospital and underwent surgery and was tested post anaesthesia, coming up positive. According to Cedar Meats, the company received official confirmation on April 27. Whilst Cedar Meats states that it had procedures in place to prevent exposure before the end of April, clearly these were insufficient.
It is less likely that we will have outbreaks of the size and extent that have happened in the US and elsewhere – partly because the Meatworkers Union and its members have fought for and achieved better working conditions which in today’s COVID-19 climate have meant they are better protected. But with the ongoing attacks on unions, from the federal government and yellow unions these hard-won conditions could be lost.
Following the COVID-19 outbreak at Cedar Meats, WorkSafe Victoria developed information aimed specifically at the meat and poultry industry. The guidance provides advice to employers on how to prevent and control employee exposure to the coronavirus. The AMIEU expressed disappointment that, despite the guidance being based on guidance from CDC in the US, WorkSafe left out any reference to a preference for shifts to be kept short (7-8 hours). The original material, suggested avoiding 10-12 hour shifts, but despite the union’s view regarding the importance of this, no mention of working hours made it into the Victorian guidance.
Sources: World Socialist Website; BBC Online; The Guardian; CNN News