Business

Meat companies get pressure from investors to improve working conditions

Meatpackers, such as Tyson Foods Inc. and JBS SA, are being asked by some investors to enforce social distancing and provide personal protective equipment for their workers.
Charlie Riedel/Associated Press
Meatpackers, such as Tyson Foods Inc. and JBS SA, are being asked by some investors to enforce social distancing and provide personal protective equipment for their workers.

Investors are picking a new fight with the world’s biggest meat companies as coronavirus outbreaks sicken thousands of workers.

After tackling issues including the use of antibiotics, animal welfare, and climate change, investors are turning their attention to plants that have become virus hotspots. They want meatpackers to adopt recommendations they say will keep workers safe and mitigate reputational and financial risks.

The investors are urging the likes of Tyson Foods Inc. and JBS SA to take steps including enforcing social distancing, providing personal protective equipment, and opposing any federal or state policies that deny unemployment benefits or stimulus relief to staff that refuse to go back to work due to fear of being infected, according to a statement by the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility signed by more than 100 global investors.

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More than 10,000 American meat workers have been infected with the virus, and at least 30 have died, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union estimates. Plant conditions — including difficulty maintaining distancing and adhering to heightened cleaning standards — increased risks for infections, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Major facilities were forced to close, tightening meat supplies and pushing up prices for beef and pork.

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“The issues raised in this statement are longstanding engagement themes that weren’t created by — but only exacerbated by — the COVID-19 crisis,” said Nadira Narine, a senior program director at the ICCR in New York. “Companies are quick to publicly champion essential employees’ health and safety as a top priority, but workers on the frontline in the meat sector report feeling more expendable than essential.”

The pandemic has highlighted worker conditions at slaughterhouses, where cold, damp factories and crowded workstations make infectious diseases particularly hard to control. The jobs are also low-paying and provide few benefits, further underscoring how labor inequality is one of the most significant rifts brought to the fore by COVID-19.

Three weeks ago, President Trump signed an executive order to keep plants running amid the outbreaks. Since then, more than a dozen facilities have reopened. Union leaders and worker advocates have argued that maintaining production in spite of the outbreaks will lead to more infections.

Investors are also asking for increased worker safeguards, requesting companies to provide more protective gear, including “the most effective respirators available.” The money managers are also advocating to ensure testing is available and asking for an end to lobbying aimed at increasing factory-line speeds.

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“If only these type of measures had been implemented early on, they would have resulted potentially in some lower output numbers for March and April but then you wouldn’t have had the big spikes in COVID-19 incidents,” said Peter van der Werf, senior engagement specialist at Robeco, a Dutch firm with $190 billion under management. Companies would probably also have avoided factory shutdowns, he said.

Tyson saidthat it has put in place additional safeguards, protocols, and guidelines. They include taking temperatures, installing dividers, requiring the use of face coverings and designating monitors to help enforce social distancing.

JBS and its Pilgrim’s Pride Corp. chicken unit said they routinely and transparently engage with investors and have implemented similar measures to keep workers safe in the pandemic.

Investor pressure on meatpackers isn’t new. Members of the ICCR network have actively engaged with producers for many years and have advocated for less antibiotics use. Some have also addressed animal welfare and water stewardship. More recently, the FAIRR network has been imploring the industry to reduce its carbon footprint.

Oxfam filed similar proposals that didn’t gather enough support at the annual general meetings of Pilgrim’s Pride and Sanderson Farms Inc. earlier this year. The NGO also sent a letter to poultry companies on April 16 requesting measures including paid sick leave, said Alex Galimberti, senior advocacy and collaborations adviser for US domestic programs at Oxfam.

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“This sector has a history of not respecting human and worker rights,” Galimberti said. “Its objective has been short-term profit without protecting the long-term sustainability of the sector. Now we see the industry’s fragility.”

Sanderson Farms said it hasn’t received investor pressure regarding worker safety during the pandemic. The company has laid out the steps it’s taking in a call with investors and added that it runs the slowest line speeds in the industry.

Many meat companies still aren’t disclosing the number of cases and deaths associated with their employees, and the executive order has allowed them to operate again after closures had eaten in their earnings. The ICCR statement is directed at the whole industry, but focuses on publicly traded companies.

“We are concerned for the welfare of all essential workers on the frontline of the COVID-19 crisis in Colorado. In particular, given historic health and safety lapses, we are closely monitoring the meat processing facilities statewide,” said Colorado State Treasurer Dave Young. “It would be a grave error to not use this moment to push for systemic reform.”