Stark inequalities in US society are being laid bare by the coronavirus pandemic, after President Donald Trump ordered meat plants to stay open to secure food chains. Some processing factories have already had to close after turning into Covid-19 hot spots when hundreds of workers packed together in tough conditions fell sick one by one. But Trump sprang into action, declaring the plants part of the US critical infrastructure with an executive order giving legal cover to employers if workers become infected.
“They’re so thrilled, they’re so happy, and we’ve solved their problems,” Trump said Tuesday, speaking about powerful corporate allies who run the US food industry. Had Trump failed to act, employers say, 80% of factories could have closed, sparking food shortages. Farmers have already slaughtered hundreds of thousands of hogs, cattle and chickens due to processing bottlenecks.
Given everything else they have to deal with, consumers will be relieved to see their food supplies secured. But what about the meat plant workers who face heading back into factories — where social distancing may be impossible? Employers promise new measures, including protective gear and health screenings, to keep the workers safe. Tyson Foods Inc. is doubling bonuses.
But unions and workers warn it’s not enough and say 20 workers in the industry have already died from the virus. Trump’s order is especially controversial because he previously ordered roundups at plants to capture undocumented migrant workers. Now he’s effectively forcing those same people back to work in conditions that have many fearing for their lives. According to government figures, 30% of meatpacking workers were born abroad. More than a third are Latino, 20% are black and 8% are Asian. This is the low-wage, minority workforce on the front lines as states open up before properly beating Covid-19.
“It’s terrible,” one processing plant worker told CNN’s Omar Jimenez in Wisconsin on Wednesday. “We all have families we have to think about. Of course I’m scared to come back, we’re seeing positives daily.”