Faith/labor coalition urges USDA to reject poultry industry speed up petition

A trade association of poultry producers thinks that production lines in poultry processing facilities are too slow, and it has petitioned the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to allow companies to speed up their production lines.

The National Chicken Council in September petitioned the USDA to waive federal regulations that cap poultry production line speeds at 140 birds per minute.

Interfaith Worker Justice (IJW), a leading organization of a faith/labor coalition opposing the request, said that lifting the waiver will make a bad situation worse.

“Poultry line speeds have for years been capped at 140 birds per minute, a rate that already causes countless injuries and illnesses every year to the workers who must make the same two or three cuts thousands of time over the course of a single shift. Carpal tunnel syndrome and other chronic injuries are common, as are amputations,” said IJW in a media release.

Deborah Berkowitz, senior fellow for worker safety and health at the National Employment Law Project, said that poultry workers also face serious threats to their health because they are exposed to hazardous chemicals and because their employers limit their bathroom breaks in order to keep fast-paced production lines moving.

The Chicken Council’s petition says that increased line speeds will result in cost savings that are “consistent with the regulatory reform initiatives recently put in place by the President, and the waivers are consistent with the Administration’s emphasis on reducing regulatory burdens on the industry.”

The petition also says that food safety won’t be affected by the speed up, but it didn’t say anything about the speed up’s impact on worker safety and health.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO), however, did have something on this subject and it wasn’t good.

The GAO conducted a study of worker safety at meat and poultry production facilities in the US. In November, it issued a report on its findings.

The agency’s report says that meat and poultry workers work in close quarters with sharp knives; the floors on the production line are wet; machines at the facilities can be dangerous, and workers can also be exposed to hazardous chemicals.

Workers told GAO employees that production lines moves so fast and relentlessly that they don’t have time to take bathroom breaks.

These conditions, according to the report, make “meat and poultry slaughter and processing one of the most hazardous industries in the United States.”

The GAO report isn’t the only source that calls attention to the worker safety problems at poultry processing plants.

The Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine reports that the poultry industry is “a leading source of reports of occupational finger amputations.”

Berkowitz said that based on these findings and others, “the USDA must reject the (poultry) industry’s petition.”

“Poultry workers already work in harsh conditions and at breakneck line speeds,” Berkowitz said. “As a result, even industry-reported statistics show that workers face illness rates five times the national average. Among all industries reporting to the federal government, the poultry industry had a higher number of severe injuries than much of the construction industry, the auto industry, the steel industry, and the saw mill industry,”

The faith and labor coalition on December 12 rallied in Washington DC, and a delegation hand delivered letters to USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue and Acting Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety Carmen Rottenberg urging them “to keep line speeds as they are and reject industry pressure to deregulate.”

Marc Perrone,  president of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) International Union, also sent Perdue a letter.

“Deciding to increase line speeds while so many poultry workers are enduring dehumanizing and dangerous conditions makes no sense,” writes Perrone.

“Now is the time for the USDA to take more decisive steps to protect vulnerable workers inside poultry plants–particularly at non union plants where they routinely struggle to speak up about inhumane conditions–not to end speed limits,” continues Perrone. “For the sake of protecting hard working poultry workers and American families who consume chicken, rejecting this line speed petition is the right thing to do.”

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AZ carpenters demand state official resignation for lax enforcement of safety and wage theft laws

Members of Carpenters Local 1912 in Phoenix, Arizona told the Industrial Commission of Arizona (ICA) that “enough is enough when it comes to short-cutting worker safety in the name of higher profits.”

More than 160 members of Local 1912 packed an ICA auditorium in Phoenix to demand that the commission end its practice of arbitrarily lowering workplace safety violation fines.

Union members also criticized the commission for its lax enforcement of wage theft violations.

“Workplace injuries and wage theft rob Arizona’s hard-working families struggling to get by, leaving them at the mercy of unscrupulous employers, undermining legitimate businesses, which results in the loss of thousands of man-hours and tens of millions of dollars in tax revenues to our State that could help to fund our schools, highways, and infrastructure and grow our economy,” said Fabian Sandez, president of Local 1912.

Union carpenters also want ICA Chairman Dale Schultz to resign.

ICA’s practice of lowering workplace safety fines came to light in December after an investigative report in the Arizona Daily Star found that the commission routinely lowered workplace safety fines when employers requested that they do so.

The reporters reviewed 139 workplace safety fines proposed by the Arizona Department of Occupational Safety and Health (ADOSH) between January 2016 and November 2016.

The reporters found that ICA, which has the authority to review and amend ADOSH fines, granted reductions or eliminated fines in half the cases. The fine reductions totaled more than $186,000.

The Star’s reporting led Peter Dooley of the National Council on Occupational Safety and Health, and others to ask the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to review ICA’s practices.

“When you reduce fines and downgrade violations again and again, you’re sending a message that workers’ lives are not valued,” said Dooley. “That’s not right for Arizona.”

After OSHA conducted its review of ICA’s practices, it concluded that ICA was reducing fines “in a seemingly arbitrary manner” and it “was operating outside its legal authority by reclassifying violations.”

OSHA notified ICA of its findings in May and required ICA to cease its arbitrary and illegal actions.

Under the leadership of Schultz, ICA has failed to provide OSHA with a plan for changing its employer-friendly practices.

Instead, Schultz has called the commission’s practice of working with employers to reduce fines an “innovative” approach to improving workplace safety.

As he was explaining his innovative approach to the 160 carpenters attending ICA’s September 21 meeting, Pete Rodriguez, a Local 1912 member stood up, interrupted Schultz.

He asked, “How many millions of dollars have been settled and pushed under the rug because it was politics over the lives of the blue-collar man?”

Moments later Rodriquez said to Schultz, “I stand here with the Arizona carpenters and ask for your resignation.”

At that point, union members stood up and walked out, emptying the auditorium where the meeting was being held.

Before they left, carpenters criticized the commission for not doing enough to stop wage theft and employer wage fraud.

Ensuring that employers comply with state laws concerning the payment of employees and reporting those payments is one of the responsibilities of ICA.

While addressing the commission during the meeting, Sandez said that all too often, construction contractors pay their workers in cash.

By paying in cash, contractors don’t need to keep payroll records that show whether they pay overtime earned by employees, make contributions to social security, or pay unemployment and workers compensation premiums.

In short paying in cash erases any paper trail that shows whether the employer commits wage theft.

“The black market for labor exploits desperate workers, creates the loss of tens of millions of dollars in tax revenues, and perpetuates criminal activity,” said Steve Pasko, a union member addressing the commission. “How are legitimate companies supposed to compete and bid for projects when (others) are allowed to operate with impunity, due to the lack of enforcement by this commission?”

Sandez faulted the commission for its failure to protect worker safety and its indifference toward wage theft crimes.

“In our industry, dishonest businesses commit on a continuing basis acts of wage theft, fraud, and willful safety violations, putting the physical safety and financial well-being of our state’s workers at risk,” said Sandez to the commissioners. “Yet this commission has chosen to side with lawbreakers by reducing fines, watering down violations, rather than taking the appropriate actions demanded by law.”

Researchers link meeting corporate earnings goals to worker injuries

A recently published research paper finds that corporate managers will sacrifice workers’ safety in order to meet investor earnings expectations.

The paper authored by Judson Caskey, an associate professor of accounting at UCLA, and N. Bugra Ozel, an assistant professor of accounting at the University of Texas at Dallas, was published in the February issue of the Journal of Accounting and Economics.

Caskey and Ozel, find strong evidence showing that when corporations are in danger of not meeting earnings expectation benchmarks set for them by Wall Street, corporate managers will try to lower costs by increasing employees’ workload and cutting back on safety-related expenditures.

Doing so increases the number of job related injuries or illnesses by between 10 percent and 15 percent.

Earnings benchmarks are set by Wall Street analysts to help investors determine whether to buy or sell stock in companies.

“We know that firms try to meet earnings benchmarks because the benchmarks have implications for the firms,” said Ozel. “If firms do not meet these benchmarks, then investors punish them, and stock prices go down significantly after a miss of earnings expectations. That gives managers incentive to use the tools they have to ensure they are going to perform at least to the expectations.”

Among the tools that management uses “to ensure that they are going perform at least to the expectation” is their ability to control expenditures.

One way to control expenditures is to reduce spending on equipment maintenance, safety training, and other safety measures, all of which can lead to more on-the-job injuries

Another way is to increase workers’ workload, which lowers labor costs by squeezing more production out of workers.

Making employees work harder can lead to more work injuries, write Caskey and Ozel because as workers are forced to work harder they can “compromise their safety by overextending themselves or by circumventing safety procedures that slow the flow of work.”

“Taken together, the evidence suggests that both pressure to increase worker productivity and cuts to safety-related expenditures contribute to the relation between benchmark beating and workplace safety, said Ozel”

According to the paper, work injuries are 10 percent to 15 percent higher for corporations in danger of not meeting their earnings benchmark compared to those that exceed benchmarks by a comfortable margin.

Caskey and Ozel arrived at their conclusions after studying years of corporate safety data reported to the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and corporate financial reports.

“There’s clearly an economic trade off,” said Ozel in describing the results of their research. “Managers are there to think about the best interests of their investors, and they have to make a decision of what would be in the best interests of the investors, and sometimes, they might decide to risk injuries.”

The authors also find that there are some exceptions to their overall findings.

The biggest exception is in companies where workers belong to unions. These companies, according to Caskey and Ozel, are less likely to put their workers at risk of injury in order to meet earnings benchmarks.

“This is consistent with unions’ aim to ensure reasonable workloads, work speed, and safety” write Caskey and Ozel. “It is also consistent with the findings in the literature that, compared to non-union workers, union workers are less likely to perceive that taking risks is a part of their job, and unionization leads to fewer workplace injuries.”

“Our evidence suggests that unions mitigate the extent to which pressure to meet earnings expectations translates into reduced safety”, continue the authors.”

Other factors that make it less likely that corporations will reduce worker safety in order to meet earnings benchmark are the strength of a state’s workers’ compensation system and the extent to which a company relies on government contracts for its earnings.

Companies that rely heavily on government contracts are less likely to cut worker safety measures because “government contracts typically include terms that prohibit bids from firms deemed to have unsafe work environments.”

We tend to think of corporate managers as rational players for whom “performance is important” but not so important that they will “sacrifice people’s health for this purpose,” said Ozel. “And (yet in our research) we find quite a significant result — a 10 to 15 percent increase in employee injuries.”

Walmart contractors cited for safety violations–again

A California state agency has cited two Walmart contractors for worker safety violations at a warehouse where the retail giant’s goods are stored and shipped. The citations, which could cost the contractors $60,000, were the result of an investigation triggered by safety complaints filed in July by warehouse workers.

The same workers who filed the safety complaints subsequently went on two unfair labor practices strikes, one in September and another in November, to protest their employers’ retaliation against workers who spoke out about safety and other work related problems at the warehouse located in Mira Loma in Southern California.

The safety investigation and subsequent citations were the work of the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The citations were levied against NFI, a nationwide logistics company that operates the Mira Loma warehouse, and Warestaff, the staffing agency that supplies the warehouse’s permatemps (workers classified as temporary workers but who stay on the job for long stretches of time).

“California OSHA has determined in its investigation that safety conditions at the Walmart-contracted warehouse are not safe or legal,” said Guadalupe Palma, a campaign director for Warehouse Workers United, a worker center helping California warehouse workers organize and fight for respect on the job. “This vindicates the workers who were punished when they raised concerns.”

According to Cal OSHA, four of the safety violations were serious.

One said that traffic paths in the warehouse were poorly marked and obstructed with boxes and pallets “which posed a clear hazard to employees (on foot) of being struck by forklifts and electric pallets.” The poorly marked and blocked traffic paths also  made access to emergency exits more difficult to locate.

A second citation said that the employer did not ensure that workers, working close to forklifts and electric pallets, had access to safety shoes exposing their feet and toes to serious crushing injuries. The citation requires the employer to provide workers with steel-toed shoes.

The third citation said that the employer did not fix broken dock plates, the area where workers walk between trailers and the warehouse while loading and unloading trailers, creating a “hazard to employees as they moved merchandise across the dock plates.”

The final serious citation said that workers weren’t properly trained in the prevention of heat illnesses even though they often worked in trailers where temperatures rose to as high as 105 degrees.

NFI was fined a total of $27,830 and Warestaff $29,140. Both said that they would appeal the fines.

A year ago, NFI and another permatemp staffing agency, Tri-State Staffing, were fined $250,000 for safety violations at another warehouse that NFI operates for Walmart in Chino, California.

After the Mira Loma workers went on strike in September, Walmart said that it would step up its safety audits of contractors like NFI and Warestaff. After an audit of the Mira Loma warehouse, a Walmart spokesman said that the safety problems at the warehouse had been addressed. In another statement made a few days later, the spokesperson said that conditions at the Mira Loma warehouse were consistent with conditions found at warehouses directly operated by Walmart.

Warehouse Workers United in a statement about the Cal OSHA citations said that “working conditions inside the Walmart-contracted warehouse do not meet the company’s own Standards for Suppliers, which detail standards for jobs in its supply chain including safety, compliance with all laws, freedom of association and decent wages.”

Bangladesh workers demand end to deathtrap labor

Tens of thousands of Bangladesh garment workers left their jobs on Monday, November 26 and marched to the center of Ashulia, the hub of the country’s garment industry, demanding an end to “deathtrap labor.” Ashulia, a suburb of the nation’s capital Dhaka, is the site of Saturday morning’s deadly fire that killed at least 124 workers at a garment factory owned by Tazreen Fashions .

“(The workers) want to see safety improvements to these deathtrap factories,” said Babul Akter, president of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity to Agence France Presse (AFP).

The workers also are demanding justice for their fallen comrades. “I demand justice, I demand the owner be arrested,” said a woman named Shadida, who gave only her first name to Reuters. Shadida said that she hadn’t been able to find her mother who worked at the Tazreen factory.

The fire at the Tazreen factory is the worst in a long series of garment factory fires that according to the International Labor Rights Forum have killed 700 Bangladesh garment workers since 2005.

The cause of the Tazreen fire is under investigation, but first reports blame a faulty electrical system. The factory was eight stories high but had no fire exits. Many of those who died either jumped to their death to escape the flames or were burned alive.

AFP reports that the fire-gutted factory was built in 2009. At the time, the owners had permission to build a three-story building, but added the extra floors without permission.

Tazreen is owned by the Tuba Group, which contracts with Li & Fung of Hong Kong to make clothes that are sold in stores throughout the US and Europe including Walmart, Carrefour, Target, Kohls, and others.

The International Labor Rights Forum says that it has evidence that the Tazreen factory produced clothing for brands such as Walmart’s Faded Glory, Ace, C&A, Dickies, Fashion Basics, Sean Combs Co.’s Enyce brand, Edinburgh Woollen Mill’s brands P.G. field and Country Rose, Hippo, Infinity Woman, Karl Rieker GMBH & Co., Kebo Raw, Kik, Piaza Italia, Soffe, and True Desire.

A Walmart spokesperson said that the company was in the process of trying to determine if any of the clothes it sells are made by Tazreen.

The lack of safety at Bangladesh garment factories has been a point of concern for years, and Western retailers have tried to address this issue by establishing contractor guidelines and conducting safety audits carried out by third-party inspectors.

The Tuba Group said that its garment factories have passed safety inspections carried out by Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production (WRAP), which the ready wear fashion industry established after it was criticized for relying on sweatshop labor to produce its clothing.

WRAP, however, denies that it has certified the Tuba Group’s factories.

Whatever the truth is, this latest deadly fire shows that the inspection system that was supposed to end sweatshop conditions has failed.

Phil Robertson, Asia deputy director of Human Rights Watch, calls the safety inspection system “a joke.”

“The only people who actually believe the labor inspection system does anything are the ministers and officials who have a vested interest in perpetuating the fiction of its effectiveness,” said Robertson to AFP.

Last May, a few Western retailers, such as PVH, which owns Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein, agreed to support a program designed to improve safety standards in the Bangladesh garment shops that make its clothes.

However, “The deal has not made much headway due to non-participation by major brands like Walmart, Gap and Carrefour,” said Amirul Haque Amin, president of the National Garment Workers Federation, an independent union of garment workers, to AFP. “The problem is when it comes to workers’ safety, Western retailers mostly offer lip service.”

Amin said that the fire at the Tazreen factory and the others that preceded it are the result of willful neglect by the government and garment factory owners. The Bangladesh garment industry produces the country’s leading export.

“This disastrous fire incident was a result of continuing neglect of workers’ safety and their welfare,” said Amin to Reuters. “Whenever a fire or accident occurs, the government sets up an investigation and the authorities–including factory owners–pay out some money and hold out assurances to improve safety standards and working conditions. But they never do.”