What’s the real cost of a banana?

By Nailah John, Linda Golodner Food Safety and Nutrition Fellow
When we buy a product at our local grocery store, we sometimes do not think of how the product was sourced or what it took to get it to our shopping cart. One such commonly consumed product are bananas. With more than a billion eaten yearly, it’s one of the top five fruits consumed worldwide. Let us ask the question, “what is the real cost of a banana?” by diving deeper into the banana industry and, specifically, its exploitation of child labor.

According to the International Labor Organization, child labor is defined as “work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential and dignity, and that is harmful to physical and mental development.” Globally, 152 million children are trapped in child labor, highlighting the extent of the problem. The banana industry is just one of many industries using child labor. The two regions that are the largest producers of bananas are Asia and Latin America.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s 2017 Findings of the Worst Forms of Child Labor, 57 percent of child laborers in Brazil were working in agriculture, with high concentration in the North and the Northeast regions. In Brazil, the Government of Brazil’s Household Survey estimated that 2,936 children under the age of 14 were involved in cultivating bananas in 2015. When Oxfam New Zealand interviewed households in banana plantation towns in the Philippines, they found that 22.5 percent reported having a child working.

Banana plantation laborers in the Philippines may be hired by middlemen who deploy them to different plantations or farms owned by corporate growers, Oxfam New Zealand found. On these banana plantations, child laborers are assigned to bagging and stripping of banana leaves. These growers then sell bananas to major global brands such as Dole, Chiquita, or Del Monte.

The U.S. imported over $2.8 billion in bananas which is 17.6 percent of total imported bananas in 2019 according to World Top Exports. As consumers, we have the power to demand that companies create non-exploitative, fair trade, and child labor free products. Consumers need to take a stance against products made with child labor, which would put pressure on companies to implement fair and ethical policies governed by accountability measures. It is an indisputable truth that how you spend your money can literally affect the lives of millions around the world.

As consumers in a country with dominant economic power, it is imperative for us to learn about the origins of the products we use. We all must do our part. One way to start is to download an app called Sweat & Toil—created by the U.S. Department of Labor—which lets you:

  1. check countries’ efforts to eliminate child labor;
  2. find child labor data;
  3. browse goods produced with child labor or forced labor;
  4. review local and international laws and ratifications; and
  5. see what governments can do to end child labor.

The other way consumers can make more responsible decisions is by visiting the Equal Exchange online and via social media. In 1986, Equal Exchange became a pioneer in fair trade coffee by paying mutually agreed upon prices with a guaranteed minimum to small-scale coffee farmers. And in 2006, it began working towards applying this model to bananas. Equal Exchange bananas are grown at three small farmer cooperatives in Ecuador and Peru. Through democratically organized co-ops, farmers leverage collective resources and obtain access to global markets, maintaining agency over their businesses, land, and livelihoods. Consumers can request these bananas from their local grocery stores.

The banana industry continues to engage in unfair labor practices, subject workers to dangerous working conditions, and perpetuate global inequalities. Let us be informed consumers and take action to stop child labor by supporting certified, fair trade organic bananas.

Not so sweet: Child labor in banana production

By Child Labor Coalition intern Ellie Murphy

Americans eat a lot of bananas. The U.S. is the world’s biggest importer of bananas, eating between 28 and 30 bananas per person per year. Worldwide, bananas are the most popular fruit with 100 billion consumed annually. The fruit is nutritious and cheap. Prices generally fluctuate between 30 cents and $1.00 per banana. It’s a great deal for the consumer, but someone is paying a heavy price to produce bananas: exploited farmworkers, including many children.
Stagnating banana prices have put the squeeze on farmers, leading some planters to hire the cheapest workers—children. The work is hard, often dangerous, and not fit for children. Yet they toil in the fields to help their impoverished families.

Countries that use child labor to produce bananas include Ecuador, Belize, Brazil, Nicaragua, and the Philippines, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s (USDOL) List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor.

Poverty is the main driver of child labor, but children in the developing world face barriers to accessing education that can push them to farm work. Besides the cost of school, uniforms, and books, there are also some countries that don’t have enough schools, classrooms, or teachers. And transportation problems can impact children’s ability to attend school.

Child labor in the banana sector poses significant challenges to children’s health and overall well-being. Child workers employed at these plantations are often forced to handle sharp tools like machetes, carry heavy loads, and face exposure to agrochemicals like pesticides and fungicides without protective clothing or gear. Dizziness, nausea, and negative long-term health conditions can result in child workers, and because child workers often live on banana plantations, escaping these health hazards is nearly impossible.

Let’s take a closer look at Ecuador, the world’s top exporter of bananas.

A Human Rights Watch (HRW) report released in April 2002 found widespread labor and human rights abuses on Ecuadorian banana plantations. Children as young as eight were found performing hazardous work. “The use of harmful child labor is widespread in Ecuador’s banana sector,” concluded HRW. Report authors interviewed 45 child banana workers and found that 41 began working between eight and 13 with most starting at age 10 or 11. “Their average workday lasted twelve hours, and fewer than 40 percent of the children were still in school by the time they turned fourteen,” noted HRW. According to USDOL, almost half of indigenous children in rural areas do not attend school, “which can make them more vulnerable to child labor.

“In the course of their work, [child banana workers] were exposed to toxic pesticides, used sharp knives and machetes, hauled heavy loads of bananas, drank unsanitary water, and some were sexually harassed,” noted HRW.

Roughly 90 percent of the children HRW interviewed reported that they “continued working while toxic fungicides were sprayed from airplanes flying overhead. In an attempt to avoid harmful chemicals, children interviewed about their experience stated that they used various methods to avoid toxic chemicals: “hiding under banana leaves, bowing their heads, covering their faces with their shirts, covering their noses and mouths with their hands, and placing banana cartons on their heads.”

About one in 20 Ecuadorian children in the 5-14 age group work—and four in five of these child workers toil on farms, according to data from USDOL released in its 2019 Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor (2019) report.

Clearly, child labor laws in Ecuador are not being adequately enforced. Alarmingly, according to the USDOL, funding for Ecuador’s labor inspectorate fell dramatically from $1.5 million in 2017 to $265,398 in 2018. During that time the number of inspectors increased from 150 to 249. There is no explanation provided for these conflicting numbers but USDOL did note there were fiscal pressures on the Ecuadorian government.

The 2002 HRW report cited many causes of child labor, including discrimination against unionized adult workers who earn higher wages. As a result, many workers who unionize are fired and replaced with children who earn around $3.50 per day, 60 percent of the minimum wage for banana farmers. “Ecuadorian law fails to protect effectively the right to freedom of association, and employers take advantage of the weak law and even weaker enforcement to impede worker organizing,” noted HRW.

Since the 2002 HRW report, Ecuador has raised the minimum age of employment to 15, banned children from hazardous work, and raised fines for employers hiring children.

In its 2019 child labor Findings report, USDOL noted that “in 2018, Ecuador made a significant advancement in efforts to eliminate the worst forms of child labor.” One change involved better protecting unionized employees against discrimination so that children are not targeted for cheap labor. Ecuador has also created more social programs for children susceptible to child labor, including the “Lifetime Plan” that provides conditional cash transfers to vulnerable children from birth.

Despite the positive ranking for Ecuador, child labor in the banana sector continues to be prevalent in Ecuador.  Poverty and limited law enforcement make child labor an unfortunate reality for families.

Banana exporting companies often fail to address adequately child labor and hazardous working conditions in their supply chains. The big players –Dole, Del Monte, and Chiquita Fyffes—need to do more if we are to end child labor in banana production. Dole claims to prohibit child labor stating that “[it prohibits] any people younger than 18 from being hired or employed in any form.” Yet, child labor in the sector flourishes in at least five of the major exporting countries, according to USDOL.

In its Findings report, USDOL makes a number of recommendations to help reduce child labor in Ecuador, including a call for a new national child labor survey, added funding to hire more labor inspectors, and social programs in rural farm areas and informal sectors. USDOL also suggests “removing school-related fees, increasing classroom space, and providing adequate transportation.” These modifications will specifically help children living in rural areas such as migrant children and indigenous children stay in school.

Concerted efforts by the Ecuadorian government and multinational banana exporters are needed if child labor is to be reduced.

Consumers have a part to play in the solution as well. The Food Empowerment Project advises consumers to buy bananas produced with less exploitation. They recommend buying from Equal Exchange. Bananas from small farmer-owned cooperatives are available in some parts of the United States. Look for bananas from Coliman, Earth University, and Organics Unlimited/Grow. “If your grocery stores do not carry these brands of bananas, we encourage you to ask them to,” says the Food Empowerment Project.

Consumers should make their voices heard: the sweetest banana is a child-labor-free banana.

Ellie Murphy is a rising junior at Tufts University, majoring in International Relations and Sociology.

Labor Day 2020 sees highest approval ratings for unions since 2003

Happy Labor Day everyone! The breaking news about this year’s Labor Day Celebrations is that a cross-section of Americans support labor unions in higher numbers. In fact, a recent Gallup poll found that 65 percent approve of unions, compared to just 49 percent in 2009. Today, 83 percent of Democrats support unions, while 64 percent of independents do and 45 percent of Republicans do. That’s telling news about how Americans perceive the value of labor unions.

Why has support for unions gone up? Because unions provide a voice for workers on health care, workplace safety, economic security, and decent wages—something all Americans want and need. Last week NCL asked our union representatives on our Board of Directors to join us for a discussion on COVID-19 and the importance of unions. You can watch the broadcast here: COVID-19: The inside perspective from frontline workers and their unions.

We are also pleased that State Attorneys General are playing an increasingly important part in protecting workers from wage theft and enforcing the law against errant employers.

NCL’s John Breyault has had four interviews with state AG’s in the past several months, focused on fraud and other related issues. The NCL Board and staff support stronger AG action in the coming months, and our work on this issue truly makes NCL’s mission #NeverMoreRelevant in these changing times.

This 2020 Labor Day, we want to thank the many millions of American workers who have showed up each day for work, risked their health and well-being to do their jobs during this very challenging pandemic. With support for unions on the rise, let us commit to reforming labor laws and allowing workers to organize and join unions without undue influence or scare tactics from employers. The rates of union membership should be far higher and would be but for the barriers in place. Once again, to America’s workers we say: stay safe and stay healthy this 2020 Labor Day.

Two dynamos of women’s rights law crashed through the glass ceiling—part 1

Marcia Greenberger, the founder and co-president of the National Women’s…

Two dynamos of women’s rights law crashed through the glass ceiling—part 2

Marcia Greenberger, the founder and co-president of the National Women’s….

Farmworkers and COVID: ‘A ticking time bomb’

It’s been referred to as a “ticking time bomb,” the coronavirus and its potential impact on farmworkers—the incredibly hard-working men, women, and children who pick our fruits and vegetables and provide other essential agricultural work. Farmworkers are notoriously underpaid for dirty, back-breaking work and now face great risk from COVID-19.

Farmworker advocacy groups that National Consumers League (NCL) works with or supports—such as Farmworker Justice, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, the United Farmworkers of America (UFW), the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, and a national cadre of legal aid attorneys—have spent recent months strategizing about ways to protect this community that is especially vulnerable to the virus.

Farmworkers are poor, with extremely limited access to health care and, due to their poverty, often report to work despite illness. The risks of an outbreak are especially great because workers often toil in close physical proximity to one another as they harvest, ride to the fields in crowded buses and cars, have limited access to sanitary facilities, including hand-washing, and often live in overcrowded, dilapidated housing.

Despite their essential contributions to the economy, farmworkers have been cut out of the emergency relief packages. The Trump Administration has even revealed plans to lower pay for agricultural guest workers who sacrifice home and family to come to the United States to perform arduous farm labor. Advocates fear that decreasing guest worker wages would drive down wages for farmworkers already living and working in the United States.

The majority of farmworkers are immigrants from Mexico or are the children of Mexican immigrants, often socially isolated from mainstream America. Poverty forced many farmworkers to leave school at an early age. It also causes them to bring their children to work in the fields so that child labor can supplement their meager incomes. Language and cultural barriers further their isolation. NCL, through the Child Labor Coalition (CLC), which it founded and co-chairs, continues to work to close the loopholes in labor laws that allow children in agriculture to work at early ages—often 12—and to begin performing hazardous work at age 16.

“When the virus began to move into America’s rural areas, many socially- and culturally-isolated farmworkers hadn’t heard about the virus,” said Reid Maki, director of child labor issues and coordinator of the CLC. “Some were confused that the grocery store shelves were empty and that the bottled water they usually buy suddenly cost much more. In some cases, farmworkers are not being told about the virus or the need to take special precautions while working.”

Farmworkers face an alarming dearth of protective equipment. Many farmworkers groups, are urgently racing to provide masks and other protective gear.

A farmworker with COVID-19 is unlikely to know he or she has it and, therefore, very likely to keep working and infect their family and coworkers. Recently, a growers group tested 71 tree fruit workers in Wenatchee, WA. Although none of the workers were showing symptoms of COVID-19, more than half tested positive!

Concerned about these developments, the CLC wrote letters in May to several appropriators and the Committee on Agriculture, asking for additional nutritional and childcare resources for farmworker families.

Box: How to get involved

  • Sign the Food Chain Workers Alliance to urge Congress to include resources for food chain workers.
  • Sign UFW’s petition urging Congress to stop Trump Administration efforts to lower wages for agricultural guest workers.
  • Make masks and send them to farmworker groups in your state.
  • Urge congressional representatives to fund farmworker relief efforts.

It’s time for U.S. tobacco companies to protect all child tobacco workers

Reid Maki is the director of child labor advocacy at the National Consumers League and he coordinates the Child Labor Coalition.

In 2014, under pressure from advocacy groups like the Child Labor Coalition and Human Rights Watch (HRW), several tobacco companies operating in the United States announced they would only buy tobacco from growers who agree not to hire children under 16 to work in contact with tobacco plants.

The child rights and human rights groups had been pushing for a ban on all children—aged 17 and below—from harvesting tobacco because of health problems related to nicotine exposure. These negative health impacts were well-documented in Tobacco’s Hidden Children, a report from HRW published in May 2014.

“Children interviewed by Human Rights Watch in North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia frequently described feeling seriously, acutely sick, while working in tobacco farming,” noted HRW. “For example, Carla P., 16, works for hire on tobacco farms in Kentucky with her parents and her younger sister. She told Human Rights Watch she got sick while pulling the
tops off tobacco plants: ‘I didn’t feel well, but I still kept working. I started throwing up. I was throwing up for like 10 minutes, just what I ate. I took a break for a few hours, and then I went back to work.’

Another child worker interviewed by HRW, Emilio R., a 16-year-old seasonal worker in eastern North Carolina, said he had headaches that sometimes lasted up to two days while working in tobacco: “With the headaches, it was hard to do anything at all. I didn’t want to move my head.”

Some children describe the flu-like symptoms of nicotine poisoning as “feeling like I was going to die.”

HRW researchers found that “many of the symptoms reported by child tobacco workers are consistent with acute nicotine poisoning, known as Green Tobacco Sickness, an occupational health risk specific to tobacco farming that occurs when workers absorb nicotine through their skin while having prolonged contact with tobacco plants.” Dizziness, headaches, nausea, and vomiting are the most common symptoms of acute nicotine poisoning. Three-quarters of the children interviewed by HRW in the report noted the onset of health symptoms when they began tobacco work, and many of those symptoms correlated with nicotine absorption.

U.S. child labor law is of no help in dealing with this problem. American law has exemptions for agriculture that allow children who are only 12 to work unlimited hours on farms as long as they are not missing school.

In 2014, the tobacco companies agreeing to protect the youngest child workers seemed like an important step forward. But six years later, we have concerns that the voluntary ban is not working.

Farmworker communities have proven particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. With schools closed for the summer and many parents sick, we fear that the number of children from desperately poor farmworker families who seek jobs on tobacco farms may increase.

Over the last six years, partner organizations in North Carolina have told us that younger children are still working in tobacco fields.

A recent health impacts study on child farmworkers in North Carolina (“Latinx child farmworkers in North Carolina: Study design and participant baseline characteristics” in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine, November 28, 2018) by researchers at Wake Forest School of Medicine reported data that suggests children under 16 continue to work in tobacco
fields.

In 2017, the first year Wake Forest researchers interviewed farmworker children—and three years after the tobacco companies’ voluntary age restriction, researchers interviewed 202 children and found 116 had worked tobacco in the week before the interview.

Yes, it’s just one study. But in the absence of federal and state data—which is notoriously poor when it comes to counting child farmworkers—it suggests that, in North Carolina, one of the four prime tobacco-growing states, nearly half of child tobacco workers are under 16. It confirms what we had been hearing anecdotally from farmworker groups in North Carolina: the
tobacco companies’ policy isn’t working.

Children in the United States are not allowed to perform work that has been labeled hazardous by the U.S. Department of Labor. You must be 18 to do dangerous work in all sectors except agriculture. This is an exemption that needs to end. Tobacco has not been labeled as dangerous work, even though everyone agrees that it is. That’s why the tobacco companies in
2014 said young children should not do it.

Children who are under 18 cannot buy cigarettes in a store, yet they are permitted to work 10 or 12 hour days in tobacco fields in stifling heat, breathing nicotine though the air, and absorbing it through their skin. Many children are so desperate to avoid contact with the plants that they work in black garbage backs with holes cut out for their arms and legs.

Efforts to pass federal legislation, the Children Don’t Belong on Tobacco Farms Act, could fix this problem with a total ban on child labor in U.S. tobacco. Unfortunately, versions of the bill, in both the U.S. House and Senate, are not expected to pass any time soon. Child farmworkers, often poor and Latino, are often at the end of congressional priority lists.

American tobacco companies have had six years to try a piecemeal approach that is not working. We need tobacco companies to step up and do the right thing by banning child work in tobacco.

The impact of COVID-19 on child labor

By Child Labor Coalition intern Ellie Murphy

Combatting child labor during a global pandemic is a staggering challenge. In countries like Ghana, the Ivory Coast, Bangladesh—and dozens more—school cancellations and lost family income may push children into the labor market. Once in, it may be hard for them to get out and return to school. In the face of this dire emergency, governments, the corporate world, and charitable institutions will need to support vulnerable families during this unprecedented time.

There is a strong correlation between access to education and preventing child labor. “Lack of access to education keeps the cycle of exploitation, illiteracy, and poverty going—limiting future options and forcing children to accept low-wage work as adults and to raise their own children in poverty,” noted the children’s advocacy group, Their World.

With nine in 10 children across the globe prevented from attending school in person, Human Rights Watch notes that interrupting formal education will have a huge impact on children and jeopardize their opportunity for better employment opportunities in the future: “For many children, the COVID-19 crisis will mean limited or no education, or falling further behind their peers.”

Poverty is the single greatest cause of child labor. Because many parents have lost or will lose their jobs, children are facing increased pressure to supplement family incomes. “Children work because their survival and that of their families depend on it, and in many cases because unscrupulous adults take advantage of their vulnerability,” notes the International Labour Organization.

Countries are being impacted by COVID-19 differently, but developing countries are expected to feel more negative consequences than developed countries, according to a report from WorldAtlas.com. Tourism and trade helps fuel many of these economies and the COVID pandemic has devastated both sectors.

Developing countries—primarily in Africa and Asia—already house 90 percent of working children, according to the International Journal of Health Sciences. Economic pressure from the pandemic will likely drive even more children into the workforce.

Before the pandemic, child labor in West Africa was widespread. 2.1 million child laborers were employed by cocoa farms in the Ivory Coast and 900,000 children on cocoa farms in Ghana, according to researchers from Tulane University. Ghana and the Ivory Coast produce about 60 percent of the world’s cocoa—a critical ingredient in chocolate. A recent Voice of America (VOA) article included predications that “there will be increased economic pressures on farming families, and ongoing school closures in Ghana [meaning] children are more likely to accompany their parents to their farms and be exposed to hazardous activities.”

The VOA cited research by the International Cocoa Initiative that analyzed the impacts of income loss on child labor rates in the Ivory Coast and found that a 10 percent drop in income for families in the cocoa industry is expected to produce a 5 percent increase in child labor.

Bangladesh, which had a reported 1.2 million children trapped in the worst forms of child labor in 2015, according to the ILO, is also at risk of seeing child labor increase. Most Bangladeshi workers—87 percent—earn money in the informal economy performing daily labor, unpaid work for their family, or piece-rate work. COVID-19 impacts have left families struggling with a severe drop in income of around 70 percent in many cases. Many adults and children who work making parts of products like garments have seen their income disappear entirely. “Those who depend on daily wages, for example, day labourers, rickshaw pullers, construction workers, street vendors, workers at small informal factories have lost their incomes with the hit of the pandemic,” noted researchers with the Institute for Development Studies. With this dramatic loss of income, it is expected that families will turn to their children to earn more money to buy basic necessities for survival.

In an effort to combat the potential increase in child labor, human rights organizations have urged governments to support families during this crisis—including the use of cash transfer programs. This entails direct cash payments to destitute families. Sometimes there are strings attached to the payments. Families that accept the money must promise to keep children in school and not allow them to enter the labor market. Cash transfers, often involving small amounts of money, have proven effective, in varying degrees, in reducing child labor in many countries.

In the COVID-19 pandemic, even small amounts of money might prevent starvation—or keep children out of the labor market. Save the Children argues that cash transfers help reduce the rate of child mortality, increase access to education, and reduce child abuse. Researchers Jacobus DeHoop and Eric Edmonds recently noted that 133 countries were working on social protection responses that provide financial support to vulnerable families in an effort to combat an increase in child labor during this time. Human Rights Watch has a series of recommendations for governments, including cash transfer payments.

Government efforts alone may not be enough. Companies that employ vulnerable demographics must also respond. Verité, an organization that works to eliminate abusive labor and empower workers, issued a series of recommendations to help companies address COVID impacts. Among the recommendations was a call for companies that work in areas with high rates of child labor to monitor “hot spots” for exploitation and intervene when necessary. Additionally, Verite urged companies to provide benefits for families who experience a loss of a parent due to the pandemic, make work remote when possible, and provide longer sick leaves for employees.

The COVID-19 crisis calls for innovative efforts to protect vulnerable families and children. As Jo Becker, the children’s rights advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, notes “the choices governments make now are crucial, not only to mitigate the worst harm of the pandemic, but also to benefit children over the long term.” By providing families with desperately needed resources during this unprecedented time, it may be possible to help curtail the increase of child labor worldwide.

In the last two decades, the world has seen the number of child laborers drop by nearly 100 million. “We do not want to see those hard-won gains reversed,” said Reid Maki, director of child labor advocacy for the National Consumers League and the coordinator of the Child Labor Coalition. “Concerted and robust action is required.” The actions that those in power take today will have long-lasting impacts that go far beyond COVID-19.

Ellie Murphy is a rising junior at Tufts University, majoring in International Relations and Sociology.

NCL applauds Supreme Court decision protecting DREAMERS

June 18, 2020

Media contact: National Consumers League – Carol McKay, carolm@nclnet.org, (412) 945-3242 or Taun Sterling, tauns@nclnet.org, (202) 207-2832

Washington, DC—The National Consumers League (NCL) applauds the Supreme Court’s decision today to block the Trump Administration’s attempt to end the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivalsprogram for so-called “DREAMERS“—young people who came to the United States as children with parents who were not documented citizens at the time. Millions of these young people grew up in the United States, but their citizenship status is precarious. Thus, under this Obama-era program established in 2012, DACA is critically important to protect these young people and give them a path to citizenship 

This statement is attributable to NCL Executive Director Sally Greenberg:  

NCL applauds the 5-4 decision of the U.S. Supreme Court today blocking the Trump Administration’s efforts to undo the protections of DACA. Thousands of aspiring and promising young people who arrived in the United States as children of undocumented immigrants will not, as a result of this decision, lose critical protections DACA provides. Today we join with them in celebrating the Supreme Court’s decision to block Mr. Trump from undermining these essential protections. NCL’s long history of fighting for the rights of workers and consumers includes the rights of immigrants, who remain among the most vulnerable targets of workplace and marketplace abuses. They deserve the same protections that flow to all American citizens. NCL’s policy position on this issue was adopted in 2013.

The Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act—the proposal to grant temporary conditional residency, with the right to work, to qualifying immigrants who entered the United States as minor—and, if they later satisfy further qualifications, they would attain permanent residency.  

DACA was introduced by President Barack Obama in 2012 and allows young people who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children to stay in the country and work without being deported on a two-year, renewable term. As of March 31, 2020, 640,000 people have active DACA status, and since 2012, more than 825,000 people have utilized the program. The 5-4 Supreme Court majority, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, determined that President Trump and DHS did not adequately consider the impact on the DACA recipients themselves and the potential hardships for the some 700,000 young immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children by their parents. 

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About the National Consumers League (NCL)

The National Consumers League, founded in 1899, is America’s pioneer consumer organization. Our mission is to protect and promote social and economic justice for consumers and workers in the United States and abroad. For more information, visit www.nclnet.org.

Keeping meatpacking workers safe in the age of COVID-19: A view from the front lines

By Nailah John, Linda Golodner Food Safety and Nutrition Fellow

Meatpacking plants across America have become hot spots for COVID-19. Many plants have had to close due to the rapid increase in cases, with hundreds of workers contracting COVID-19 and a tragic number dying from the deadly virus.

Many packing plants have reopened over the past couple of weeks but the question still remains:  what measures have been put in place to address working conditions?

We interviewed someone who has firsthand knowledge of what is happening on the inside.  Robyn Robbins is the director of occupational health and safety at the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW). She has worked for UFCW for the past 24 years and prior to this position she was the Assistant Director for 18 years. UFCW is one of the largest labor unions in America. The Union represents workers in meatpacking, poultry, food processing industry, retail grocery, and healthcare—all considered to be essential workers.

Robbins told us: “Many workers are getting sick and dying, and the industry has a history of exploiting workers.” Indeed, the meat industry does not have an admirable record on protecting workers from hazards long before COVID-19. Meatpacking plants on average can employ up to 5,000 workers under one roof, and the conditions are very challenging.  Workers work closely on production lines, sometimes “shoulder to shoulder,” and the areas where they congregate off the line—such as break rooms and locker rooms—can get crowded.  The virus can spread quite easily under these conditions. And the industry has not done enough to allow workers to socially distance both on the production floor and off, or to notify the union when workers are infected, and who else has been exposed, so that the spread of the virus can be contained.

Even amid the pandemic, the demand for meat and poultry is constant. As a result, meatpacking plants have reopened, albeit not at full capacity.  Robbins noted that OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration)—the federal agency that regulates safety and healt—has taken a backseat and has not done on-site inspections. “There are no safety standards that regulate COVID-19 and no clear requirements or regulations that companies are required to follow and therefore there is no way to force companies to actually take precautionary measures recommended by the CDC to protect workers,” Robbins said. She went onto say that “OSHA is the only Federal government entity that can require companies to do anything to protect workers during this pandemic.”

UFCW local union representatives and stewards are in the plants and work hard to get companies to do the right thing to protect workers through the collective bargaining process. “The challenge is trying to get the companies to space workers out on the production floor, which does require some slowing down of line speeds; some of the companies are doing the right thing by spacing workers out but many are not, and are relying too much on protective equipment and plastic barriers, which have not been proven to offer any protection, when it is really about putting more distance between people,” Robbins told us. Social distancing in break rooms is another challenge. Companies have made some effort to effectively separate tables and are putting tents outside for workers to take breaks in those designated areas. They are also staggering shift times in order to reduce the number of workers in break areas at any one time.

Robbins noted: “not all companies are testing workers when they should be, which is a major problem.” UFCW is calling on meatpacking plants to test workers, but companies are reluctant. “If companies worked more closely with the union, they would collectively be able to come up with strategies to isolate workers, redistribute the work, and be more effective over all in addressing the issues relating to COVID-19 and meatpacking workers.”

UFCW doesn’t agree that reopening of plants should take place where there have been outbreaks and where unsafe working conditions exist, unless the companies have taken the steps necessary to protect workers from exposure to COVID-19. “The companies that did shut down made the right decision to sanitize and clean the plants,” said Robbins. “Some have also started screening workers, set up hand sanitizing stations, providing masks, spacing out common areas, giving workers face shields and putting up plastic barriers on the floor between workers where it is possible – although again, there is no data to show that plastic barriers do anything to stem the spread of the virus.”

But this is still not enough. UFCW wants to see workplaces reconfigured so that workers can be six feet apart, both on the production floor and off. This is crucial for stemming the spread of the virus.

Robbins said sick leave policies vary tremendously. “There are 500 local unions around the country, and the UFCW has been pushing for 14 days’ sick leave, successfully bargaining for this in contracts. Some companies are using a combination of different ways to allow workers to stay home when sick, many suspending their normal sick leave policy and making them more flexible. Some companies use a combination of paid sick days and short-term disability so that workers can stay home to recover and then return to work in a safe way. But not all companies are doing this; a few are even revoking paid sick leave policies that were in place at the beginning of this crisis.  This only will result in sick workers coming to work, because they have to in order to earn a living, and the virus will continue to spread, both inside plants, and outside in their communities.  It is bad corporate policy.”

Due to the thousands of cases of COVID-19 in meatpacking plants and many plants not operating at full capacity, meat shortages may continue. In closing, we so appreciate UFCW representing worker interests and Robyn Robbins’ service on NCL’s Board of Directors.