It seems hardly credible that America’s obsession with meat has lead to yet another reckless, autocratic and foolhardy act by the man who would be the Sun King. Donald Trump’s executive order to keep meat plants open shows contempt for workers’ health and public health. 

In ordering the nation’s meat plants to stay open, Donald Trump is in essence marching many meatpacking workers off to slaughter. With his executive order on Tuesday night, the president is in effect overruling safety-minded governors and mayors who have pressured numerous meat, pork and poultry plants into shutting temporarily after they had become hotspots that were spreading Covid-19 through their surrounding communities. With such a move, Trump is – let’s not mince words here – is showing contempt for both workers’ health and public health.

What makes Trump’s order especially alarming and disdainful toward workers’ wellbeing is that he has ordered meatpacking plants to stay open or to reopen even though his business-friendly Occupational Safety and Health Administration (Osha) – overseen by the labor secretary, Eugene Scalia – has issued no requirements whatsoever that meatpacking plants take firm, specific steps to protect their workers against Covid-19.

Instead, Trump’s Osha has merely issued a “guidance”, which is essentially a will-you-pretty-please-do-this request that meatpacking plants take sundry steps to improve safety. Considering that more than 700 workers at the Smithfield pork processing plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, have contracted Covid-19, it’s hard to have confidence that meatpacking companies – which have already done such a poor job protecting their workers from the virus and which traditionally put huge emphasis on line speed and productivity – will rush to take the voluntarily steps recommended to assure worker safety, steps that would cost money and slow down the plants’ all-important line speed.

“It’s a guideline. It’s not a regulation. They can do whatever they want,” Tony Corbo, an official with Food and Water Watch, told the New York Times. “The people are still standing next to one another in these plants. They’re still getting sick.”

At least 20 meatpacking workers have died from the coronavirus and 6,500 have tested positive or been quarantined, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers union. Twenty-two meat and poultry plants have been shut at some point in recent weeks after clusters of employees tested positive.

And even less would Trump would have wanted to be seen standing alongside meatpacking workers since such a high percentage of them are immigrants, often brown people from south of the border or black people from east Africa – people whom Trump has made his whipping boy. Trump doesn’t mind using these workers as production fodder so long as it keeps meat on America’s table. A shortage of meat – an all-American symbol and a macho symbol – could make Trump look bumbling and incompetent and serve as yet another reason for Americans to vote against him in November.

Who ever imagined that putting sirloin and filet mignon on your table would be a national defense issue? Trump evidently did, because he invoked the Defense Production Act to order meat plants reopened. When past presidents invoked the Defense Production Act, it was usually to order corporations to do what they don’t want to do – to rush to produce this item or that one. But here Trump has invoked the act to do what many corporations want – to have their plants reopened despite the safety worries of all those irritating governors and mayors and labor unions and workers.

Perversely, the Trump White House is pushing hard to give meatpacking companies, and all of corporate America, a disincentive to act quickly and properly to protect their workers against the pandemic. Trump’s administration is pressing Congress to enact an extraordinary liability shield that would insulate corporations from lawsuits their workers bring asserting that their employers were negligent in doing too little to protect them against Covid-19.

If you’re going to force plants to reopen and in effect force wary employees back to work – they’ll lose their unemployment benefits if they don’t go back to work at their reopened plants – shouldn’t you have some weapon, whether an emergency Osha regulation or the threat of a lawsuit to ensure that corporations step up and do what they should do on safety during the worst pandemic in a century?

It’s also rather shocking that Trump, in this executive order, does this big favor for American consumers, farmers and corporations and does nothing to thank the workers whose lives would be put on the line. At a minimum, Trump should demand that the meatpacking companies or Congress ensure that these workers receive substantial hazard pay for work he has deemed essential to the national defense. (Sherrod Brown has proposed a hazard pay premium of $13 an hour for essential workers.)

Chalk this up as yet another Trump administration win for corporate America and yet another loss for America’s workers.

Original Source: https://www.theguardian.com/