Coronavirus Can Afflict the Powerful. Yet Food Workers Remain the Most Vulnerable.Roundup
tags: public health, labor, COVID-19
Angela Stuesse is a cultural anthropologist at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. To learn more about immigrant and U.S.-born workers in Mississippi’s poultry industry, pick up her book, Scratching Out a Living: Latinos, Race, and Work in the Deep South.
More than six months after the coronavirus pandemic took hold of the country, workers in the food industry remain among the most vulnerable to its ravages. Researchers at the Food & Environment Reporting Network have tracked outbreaks in 810 meatpacking, poultry and food processing plants, documenting at least 54,122 infected workers and 245 deaths. More than 10,000 of these cases have been reported in the facilities of industry giant Tyson Foods alone.
Amid this reality, Tyson Foods recently announced a plan to open medical clinics at several of its U.S. plants. Coupled with the addition of 200 nurses and administrative positions in the company’s health services team, the plan, executives claim, will help “promote a culture of health” among workers. With the new initiative, Tyson joins a growing list of companies with on-the-job medical providers.
But our nation’s history suggests that worksite clinics may do more damage than good, further harming worker health. The U.S. meat and poultry industry has a long history of obstructing workers’ access to medical care and compensation benefits, and it has failed to provide adequate worksite medical treatment.
At the dawn of the 20th century, as the U.S. economy industrialized, workplace injuries in manufacturing were commonplace. Injured workers did not have the right to free medical treatment, wage replacement for lost work time or permanent disability benefits that would later be protected by the workers’ compensation system. Instead, courts decided whether employers bore any responsibility for work-related injuries and deaths. Employers easily and swiftly contested their liability, leaving tremendous burdens on workers’ families and communities.
During this period, to avoid costly liability lawsuits, several companies hired doctors to treat injuries in-house. These “industrial physicians,” as they became known, also redesigned plant layouts and operations. Their efforts prevented workplace injuries, but they also enabled more stringent personnel management and surveillance, and prioritized production efficiency. By allowing direct control over diagnoses and duration of treatment, corporations’ provision of medical care became a mechanism for surveilling and controlling workers and reducing labor costs.
In 1906, Upton Sinclair’s famed “The Jungle” shocked readers with its description of dangerous working conditions and industrial accidents in Chicago’s meatpacking industry. Incidents such as the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, in which 150 workers perished after being locked inside, further raised consciousness about the plights faced by workers and the need to address occupational health and safety hazards. Captivated and alarmed, a moral discourse on workplace injury and illness began to take shape among the American public. “As the work is done for the employer, and therefore ultimately for the public,” remarked President Theodore Roosevelt in 1907, “it is a bitter injustice that it should be the wageworker himself and his wife and children who bear the whole penalty. ”
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