Meat companies still don’t have enough workers to staff slaughterhouses, leading to rising prices and even some acute supply shortages. That’s a problem of their own making because of poor labor practices, according to an investor group that focuses on ESG issues.
While global meat companies boosted pay and other benefits in the wake of the pandemic that started in 2020, some of the enhanced offerings have since been rolled back or weakened, including in some cases, paid time off for sick leave, according to a report from the FAIRR Initiative released on February 14th. The group, which represents investors with $70 trillion in combined assets, also pointed to the use of subcontracted workers as leaving companies vulnerable to facilitating unethical labor conditions.
The meat industry has come under greater scrutiny since the start of the pandemic, when crowded processing plants became hot spots for Covid-19 outbreaks — thousands of the industry’s workers fell ill, and dozens died. Producers have struggled with a reputation of difficult conditions since the days of Upton Sinclair, the American author who wrote of abuses in his 1906 novel, “The Jungle.” And even in the modern era, reports have surfaced of cramped conditions, low wages and even bathroom breaks that are so minimal some workers resort to wearing diapers.
Meanwhile, meat prices in the U.S. and globally soared amid limited supplies, outpacing the inflation seen in many other food staples. And the industry has faced difficulty hiring more workers amid great competition in the labor market. In January, prices for meat were 2.2% higher than a year ago, according to Labor Department data.
“Evidence shows that shortages are becoming more prevalent and are linked to poor working conditions,’’ the FAIRR report said, referring to labor crunches. “This is a major risk, which is impacting production and profits.”
During April and May of 2020, at least 91 people who worked at meat plants died from Covid-19, and there were at least 17,358 confirmed cases, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report. A subsequent labor shortage forced many plants to shut down temporarily, which contributed to meat shortages and sent beef and chicken prices soaring to records.
Companies then boosted hourly wages and offered sick time and other increased benefits, such as childcare and college assistance. That has helped some to improve staffing levels.
According to Mark Lauritsen, vice president of meatpacking at the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, more work is needed. While workers are making a “lot more’’ than they were before the pandemic, more attention needs to be paid on safety and health protocols. “I don’t want to say it’s worse,’’ Lauritsen said of plant conditions. “It’s different.’’
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