A recording of the call is available here
Earlier today, rural faith leaders and organizers gathered on a press call to discuss the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on rural communities across North Carolina and Georgia. In these rural communities the meatpacking and agriculture industries dominate the local economies and ensure the security of the national food supply. Pastors joined workers to discuss the daily health risks these critical employees take and called for increased protection amid the coronavirus pandemic.
In order to influence future COVID-19 relief packages, faith leaders and workers also released a letter to decision makers signed by more than 100 faith leaders demanding protection and assistance be granted to rural small business owners, farmers, farmworkers, and food processing workers. Leaders on the call brought attention to recent presidential proclamations on immigration that will result in many essential food supply workers being blocked from family reunification. They also responded to President Trump’s order that meat and poultry plants remain open despite the widespread lack of adequate health protections and lack of access to healthcare and testing in most rural communities. The workers, faith leaders and rural community leaders shared powerful testimony about the personal risks they are taking to ensure the nation has a steady food supply and illustrated the consequences on the entire food system if bold actions to protect them are not taken.
The Rt. Rev. Anne Hodges-Copple, Bishop Suffragan of The Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina, said, “We are all in different ways working in collaboration with poultry workers, meat packers, and farm workers. These are our people, our brothers and sisters, those who walk with us, and above all they are essential workers who deserve all the essential protections and justice that society can afford them. Our farm, poultry, food processing workers, meat packers, and more are faced with the impossible choice between staying home if they may have COVID-19 and going back to work to make money. This is unacceptable to our people and our faith. We believe as people of faith that in this instance it is a moral imperative to respect the God-given dignity of all of God’s children, especially the most vulnerable, which certainly includes our meat packing, agriculture, food processing, and farm workers. ”
Rev. Dr. Sharon Stanley-Rea, Director, Disciples Refugee & Immigration Ministries (RIM) Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the U.S. & Canada, and National Farm Worker Ministry Board Member, said, “I am moved by the words of Jeremiah, Chapter 22, Verse 3. Treating the vulnerable poorly will lead to desolation for us all. Jeremiah’s words provide essential, powerful guidance for the protection of essential rural workers that is needed in this pandemic.
Our demands ensure protections against predatory practices, that food and poverty assistance must be offered, especially to rural communities of color, and that farm workers need to be protected as they continue to serve critical functions. To offer anything less than access to adequate healthcare, personal protective equipment, living wages, training, paid family and sick leave, and safe production lines is to risk the lives and livelihood of our nation’s most vulnerable in ways that the prophets across the ages have warned against. Mistreating the vulnerable and the immigrants on whom we all depend for food and health is likely to bring desolation to us all.”
Hunter Ogletree representing workers from the Western North Carolina Workers’ Center, said, “On a good day in a non-covid19 environment, workers are working in close proximity in the production line along with very cold environments and limited access to the bathroom. These conditions paired with inadequate health care and years of earning low wages forces these workers into staying in this steady employment. We are asking for full transparency from the poultry plants to reveal how many positive cases there are. All we have are rumors that are not going to help the health and safety of the workers. We are also asking to provide full two week paid sick leave with pandemic premium pay as well as improved health and safety measures including social distancing procedures by rearranging production lines and providing more enhanced PPE for workers. Most importantly as our workers can attest, we are asking for worker protection specifically from retaliation on speaking out on their frontline conditions.”
Gregoria, a poultry worker in NC speaking under an alias for fear of retaliation said (through a Spanish-language interpreter on the call), “They would not provide face masks or gloves and their conditions for social distancing were very bad. One week ago they started providing face masks and yesterday they started providing plastic face shields, but the social distance aspects remain inadequate. Workers are one foot away from each other with eight people in each line in the production area of the factory. There really is no six feet social distancing available and the plastic shields don’t help much.”
Sofia, a poultry worker in NC speaking under an alias for fear of retaliation said (also speaking through a Spanish-language interpreter), “I agree with my coworker and since she left things have only gotten worse. A group of workers sat down to figure out how we can protect ourselves and stand up for our rights because this virus is dangerous. Two weeks ago I had to stop working because I became sick and had to go to the hospital. They did not want to pay me for those two weeks even though I was sick and now they want me to come to work without protecting us since we don’t know who is carrying the disease.”
Michelle Osborne, Program Manager for Faith-Based and Community Partnerships Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA, said, “Even in good times, the poultry industry leaves many farmers with extreme debt, an inability to cover their costs, and the possibility of bankruptcy and losing their home. The coronavirus epidemic has exposed our fragile meatpacking industry for what it is – an industry that is built on the exploitation of growers and workers. Farmers should still receive a paycheck from the poultry companies during this pandemic, while they are following the company’s orders and depopulating their farm or holding birds for longer than normal. Protections must be put in place so that our farmers, who are already economically vulnerable, are not put in even more vulnerable positions.”