Immigrant Workers Have Borne the Brunt of COVID-19 Outbreaks at Meatpacking PlantsRoundup
tags: agriculture, immigration, labor, womens history, Meat, worker safety, food industry, social reform
Anya Jabour is Regents professor of history at the University of Montana and the author of Sophonisba Breckinridge: Championing Women’s Activism in Modern America.
The country’s eyes have turned to our meatpacking plants as officials warn of possible shortages in our food supply chain amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. Meatpacking facilities have become major centers of covid-19 outbreaks. This has focused attention on the workers at these facilities, a majority of whom are immigrants and refugees.
Although President Trump has ordered meat plants to remain open, his executive order did nothing to address the unsafe working conditions in these facilities and the vulnerability of these workers. All workers in grueling industries need and deserve better working conditions and wages that reflect the risks they take to perform essential work. But foreign-born workers face particular challenges — and they always have.
In the early 20th century, social worker Sophonisba Breckinridge investigated the horrific conditions in Chicago’s meatpacking plants. Then, as now, much of this labor was performed by immigrants. And then, as now, immigrants were an especially vulnerable group of workers.
Far from entering a cultural “melting pot,” foreign-born workers struggled to survive a toxic stew of inadequate workplace protections, unwelcoming immigration policies and unscrupulous employment practices — often without the ability to speak or write English.
Language barriers, combined with rudimentary safety measures, fostered dangerous working conditions. For instance, in 1906, a clubwoman wrote to Breckinridge about “a Polish Boy unable to read a word of English and therefore unable to read the signs of direction and warning on the machine at which he was placed who was killed caught in the machinery.”
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