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Every time I think that activist nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have stooped as low as they possibly could, another one manages to lower the limbo bar another notch and slide beneath it. The latest affront to rational thought was conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Nebraska Appleseed Center for Law in the Public Interest when they asked for help for U.S. poultry and meat packing plant workers from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).
On March 25, 2014, these advocates addressed the IACHR, which is an autonomous agency of the Organization of American States whose mission is to promote and protect human rights in the American hemisphere, and complained that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service’s (FSIS) proposed modernization of poultry slaughter rule will result in more worker injuries.
Tom Fritchie, staff attorney, Southern Poverty Law Center, testified: “Everyday workers in the U.S. meat packing and poultry industries face brutal working conditions. These industries violate the basic human rights of many workers who come from all over the hemisphere, by systematically exploiting the lack of work speed safety regulations in the U.S. The overwhelming majority of poultry processing and meatpacking workers suffer from severe and crippling injuries caused by tendon, nerve, joint and bone damage caused by dangerous working conditions. The most pervasive injuries are caused by fast work speeds.”
"The speed is so unrelenting that it has forced workers to urinate or defecate in their clothing on the line, because they are denied reasonable bathroom breaks which violates the workers’ right to dignity,” he said.
The proposed modernization of poultry slaughter rule calls for a move to an inspection system much like the hazard inspection models project (HIMP) where many of the tasks formerly performed by USDA inspectors are conducted by company employees and the potential exists for high-speed lines to be operated at speeds up to 175 birds per minute, instead of the current limit of 140 birds per minute. The advocates testified that 140 birds per minute is too fast for workers now and that allowing companies to potentially run faster line speeds would only make things worse. Essentially, the NGOs are saying that since the U.S. government won’t protect the workers, they are forced to petition an international human rights group to protect them.
I probably am not the only person who has worked in poultry plants who found Fritchie’s testimony to be factually wrong and offensive, but I am not surprised. I have heard some of the same absurd statements repeated over the years. Anyone who has ever participated in a plant safety program knows employee involvement is a key component and that poultry companies take worker safety very seriously, and tremendous strides have been made to make plants safer places to work. Over the years, I was involved personally in several projects that resulted in changes to line speeds; it isn’t just a matter of cranking up the speed with the same employee head count. Time and motion studies are conducted to determine reasonable rates for each job function, and employee numbers for each position are adjusted accordingly.
The U.S. National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) conducted a study at a poultry plant that increased line speed in evisceration in a manner similar to what might occur in a plant under the proposed modernized poultry inspection rule. This study found no relationship between evisceration line speed and the rate of musculoskeletal injuries at the plant.
It is amazing to me that with all of the possible human rights violations that might be occurring in North and South America, these NGOs think that line speeds in U.S. poultry plants are what the IACHR should be most concerned with. I realize that the union representing the USDA FSIS inspectors has some political clout, and I am glad that the Obama administration has not caved in to pressure from some of its base supporters and plans to move forward with the modernization of poultry inspection plan.
I am embarrassed for the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Nebraska Appleseed Center for Law in the Public Interest and their lack of perspective regarding what constitutes “violation of basic human rights” in this hemisphere.