Tuesday, October 11, 2005

US poultry workers

We hear a lot about bird kills in other countries and the structure of their poultry industries. But we have a large poultry industry in the US as well. Jordan at Confined Space reminds us that with all those birds comes a lot of poultry workers, too.
Back in the mid 1980's AFSCME and other unions that represented health care workers petitioned OSHA for a bloodborne pathogens standard. In the AFSCME petition for the bloodborne pathogens standard, there was also a request that OSHA add communicable diseases to the Hazard Communication Standard. At that time (and still today), the HCS only required that workers be trained about the hazards of toxic chemicals, not workplace-acquired infectious disease that may make them sick or kill them.
So the media attention to "killer flu" has caught the attention of poultry workers, too.
North Carolina poultry workers say they've been left in the dark as the world faces the looming threat of a potentially deadly bird flu hopscotching around the globe.

Mariano Castro, 37, a quality control worker at a huge Case Farms poultry processing plant in Morganton, wondered why the company hadn't held meetings to tell its workers about the potential risks.

"It's kind of terrifying," said Leonel Escobar, 29, who makes $7.75 an hour to slice up to 25 chicken legs a minute. "I want to know what the company would do if the flu did come here." (AP)
Not that anyone connected with the federal government, the state or, God forbid, the companies would tell them:
Maryland-based Case Farms is aware of concerns of the avian flu, but compliance director Ken Wilson said it would be premature to spread fear by alerting workers. Workers would be notified "when it was appropriate," he said.

Officials with Arkansas meat-processing giant Tyson Foods Inc., which runs a processing plant in Wilkesboro, did not return calls.

North Carolina medical epidemiologist Kristina Simeonsson said the risk that humans will contract the deadly avian flu strain is "very low." She suggested state-funded vaccinations for all 25,000 North Carolina poultry workers and training them to properly use their gear.
As Jordan points out, state-funded vaccination is very generous. Except there is no vaccine. Minor detail. Maybe someone forgot to tell the state's epidemiologist.
The lack of a campaign to inform poultry workers indicate they are seen as "expendable workforce" because they're poor, largely Hispanic and undocumented, said Baldemar Velasquez, president of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee.

"It's just outrageous that no one has told them about the risks," said Velasquez, whose group , represents 7,000 migrant workers in North Carolina. "The reality is: They're the ones on the front lines."
Back in March, I suggested this might be a potent organizing issue:
The bird flu situation should remind us that there is an important occupational health and safety issue here for poultry workers. A major population of the poultry workers is in the south. Health and safety, especially if it potentially involves the families and children of workers, is a potent organizing issue, more so than wages. The ergonomic and injury issues of great concern to poultry workers can be strengthened by adding an infectious disease that can be brought home to the list of issues. Organized labor should be alerted to this problem and begin to organize poultry workers around it. (Effect Measure, March 18, 2005)
The time has come, methinks.