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Meatpacking Workers Are Struggling To Protect Themselves During The Pandemic


Meatpacking plants across the country have become coronavirus hotspots, infecting thousands of workers. More than half the workers at a plant in Perry, Iowa, have now tested positive. Many of those processing the nation's pork, beef and chicken are immigrants and refugees. As Iowa Public Radio's Kate Payne reports language and cultural barriers make it even harder for some workers to protect themselves.

KATE PAYNE, BYLINE: Unlike the Perry plant, which is still operating, the plant in Waterloo, Iowa, about 150 miles to the northeast, has been closed for a week and a half after coronavirus cases skyrocketed. It's a plant where people from Mexico, Bosnia and Burma work side by side with immigrants from Liberia and other African countries. They do the work that many native Iowans refuse to do. And the job can give them a foothold into the middle class. Now health officials here say 90% of the COVID cases in this county are linked to that Tyson plant. More than 400 workers have been infected, and at least three have died. Some plant workers say they're afraid to return. This Congolese woman spoke in Kinyarwanda through an interpreter.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Through interpreter) I go, and I come back, tested positive, I'll give it to my children. And my whole family will be affected. So I'm really, really scared.

PAYNE: Like the other workers we spoke with, she fears retaliation. She says she worked shoulder to shoulder in the plant, which processes almost 20,000 hogs a day.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Through interpreter) Sometimes, when I'm using a knife to cut the meat, I just feel somebody else's hand pushing me, touching me. So it's no space.

PAYNE: In a statement, Tyson officials say they've installed workstation barriers and are doing deep cleaning at the plant. They're also still paying workers during the closure. Some immigrant workers complain that they have to rely on other employees for any safety updates and that the company is not communicating properly. Joe Enriquez Henry leads a local chapter of a Latino civil rights group. He says a lot of information is only put out in English.

JOE ENRIQUEZ HENRY: So we're having to deal with that, provide translation. There are unions in some of these plants. But because many of the union representatives do not speak (inaudible) English, it's very hard.

PAYNE: Across the country, immigrants are the backbone of the meatpacking industry, doing some of the most dangerous jobs in the country. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, meatpacking has a higher percentage of foreign-born workers than any other field. While immigrants may have the same workplace rights, advocates say it's often harder for them to speak out. Waterloo lawyer Thomas Frerichs says he's getting calls from Tyson workers, but he rarely hears from refugees.

THOMAS FRERICHS: I'm concerned that they're afraid of the legal system in general. And they're afraid that if they do reach out to a lawyer that there will be repercussions. And it simply makes them unable to get the assistance that they really need.

PAYNE: Whatever their legal status advocates say language barriers and a lack of familiarity with the law often prevent immigrants from exercising their rights. That could range from questioning a supervisor to filing worker's comp. One Tyson worker, a father and a refugee, says this job is his only option for supporting his family. He spoke in Swahili through an interpreter.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Through interpreter) Not knowing the culture, not knowing people, the only way is by getting this job - being in this job is how I can help my family, help my kids and provide.

PAYNE: Under intense pressure from management and the Trump administration, the Waterloo Tyson plant is expected to reopen soon. Workers say they're waiting for a call to tell them to go back. Hopefully, there will be an interpreter on that call to explain any new safety protocols.

For NPR News, I'm Kate Payne in Iowa City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kate Payne is an Iowa City-based reporter for Iowa Public Radio. Before she came to the Hawkeye State she was a reporter and fill-in host for WFSU, the NPR member station in Tallahassee, Florida. Kate has won awards for her political and feature reporting and her sound editing.