tags: , , , Press Releases

Experts Discuss the Coronavirus Crisis Endangering Meat Packing Workers, Family Farmers, Farmworkers and Rural Communities

Share This:

A recording of the call is available here


Earlier today, experts and activists gathered on a call to discuss the impact of COVID-19 on frontline workers critical to the food supply chain. The closing of Smithfield’s pork processing plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota has put a spotlight on the dangers facing workers in the food supply industry — who are overwhelmingly immigrants and refugees — and the rural communities who bring food to American tables and grocery stores in the midst of this crisis. The plant has more than 700 reported cases of Covid-positive workers which makes Sioux Falls the number one hotspot per capita for the disease nationwide. Despite the fact that immigrants are on the frontlines of maintaining the food supply chain, the Trump administration continues to prioritize its anti-immigrant and nativist agenda, even in the midst of a public health crisis that has strained the food supply.

Taneeza Islam, Esq., Executive Director, South Dakota Voices for Peace, said, “The beauty of this overwhelming time is to recognize collective power in addressing and dismantling systemic disparities. Even in a state where nearly 85% of our population is white, the coronavirus has disproportionately impacted communities of color – immigrants and refugees. Nearly 73% of positive cases in South Dakota are just from Smithfield (733/1065 numbers from April 16, 2020). When community advocates, unions and government can come together, we can ensure that workers and vulnerable communities are protected.”

Jordan Bruxvoort, Director of the Naomi Project, said, “My involvement with Smithfield goes back 15 years to when I was in college, when I was part of a predominately Hispanic church, and like many members, I worked with Smithfield for a few summers. I have kept a relationship with that church, where a number of members continue to work at Smithfield, for a couple of decades in some cases. Leading up to this outbreak, they were under significant physical and psychological stress, with sore arms, hands, and backs. The psychological stress of COVID-19 has only exacerbated that, and people there do not feel that the measures taken to protect them have been sufficient. Now, my friends at this church are dealing with an overwhelming reality; 10 members of the congregation have been diagnosed with COVID-19, one of whom was the man from El Salvador who passed away. I spoke with the Pastor on Tuesday, and asked him how he was doing. He told me he was sad, and when I asked why, he simply said, ‘Augustine passed away.’ On top of the rest of the cases, this is the harsh reality that he and the rest of the community is up against.”

Teresa Romero, President of the United Farm Workers, [who was represented on the call by Eriberto Fernandez, Strategic Campaigns Coordinator for UFW Foundation], said, “Governor Newsom’s Executive Order on paid sick leave is an important step in controlling the spread of the coronavirus in California’s farming communities. Farm worker families work, play, shop and worship together. Protecting these small, tight-knit communities is vital to the protection of our food supply. The United Farm Workers will work with both state and agricultural leaders in making this Executive Order operational. Farm workers throughout the United States—who the federal government designated as essential employees and are required to put themselves at risk by going to work—should receive the same sick paid leave as their counterparts in California.” 

Bryce Oates, Rural and Agricultural Policy Writer, said, “I’ve lived and breathed livestock issues my whole entire life. I got very concerned and worried when I started to hear about the coronavirus outbreak in South Dakota and how it would impact meatpacking workers there. The way the Trump administration and GOP have been handling this crisis is a disaster and is very dangerous for workers across the country, workers who work together to get food on America’s tables. It’s a public health and economic crisis. There’s a long history of corporate meatpacking companies exploiting workers. Farm bankruptcies have been on the rise, all the while there’s been a continued supply of poultry and meat from an economy that’s depressed. The farmers and meatpackers are being exploited. Family farm folks and meatpacking folks should be standing together.”

Nick Levendofsky, Director of External Affairs, Rocky Mountain Farmers Union & Board Chair, RuralOrganizing.org, said, “Immigrant workers are valued members of our communities. They live, work, pay taxes, send their children to schools, and spend their hard-earned dollars in these communities. Everyone in the food system is valued, but the reality is, without immigrant workers, we don’t eat. We should not take that for granted at any point, let alone now. As some of the most vulnerable individuals in our food system, they deserve our respect, and they deserve to be protected from the spread of disease where they work.”

Matt Hildreth, Executive Director of RuralOrganizing.org, said, “The rural America that I know is very different from the rural America that is shown to the general public. We know who are the ones doing the hard work; farmworkers, and meat packers are the foundations of where our food is built upon. These people are essential workers. There are dangers of corporatization of the agriculture industry, and we demonstrate how farmers and food workers don’t get the assistance that they need.”