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Originally Published Online: Tuesday, Nov 21, 2006
Meatpacking workers' safety still an issue

It’s good to know people are watching the meatpacking industry.

The Nebraska Appleseed Center released a report last week that suggested the industry is still too hard on the 20,000 employees in Nebraska, many of them immigrants vulnerable to exploitation.

The industry processes meat at factory-line speeds that are too fast to assure human and food safety, said the Appleseed Center, a public-policy advocate for the poor and disenfranchised.

“Federal oversight of health and safety in meatpacking plants is at an all-time low,” the report said.

Almost a year ago, Human Rights Watch issued a report identifying familiar issues in the industry: high injury rates, excessive production line speed, intimidation of immigrant workers and efforts to prevent employees from exercising their right to organize and engage in collective bargaining. It also alleged that companies manipulate workers so their injuries go unreported and they are unable to claim disability compensation.

Finally, the report directed criticism at state and federal officials for failing to enforce laws that should help protect workers.

Which brings us to the point: Six years ago, after reading the Journal Star’s 1999 series of reports on working conditions in Nebraska meatpacking plants, then-Gov. Mike Johanns recognized the troubles of this industry and said the Journal Star stories “tugged at his heart.”

He issued a bill of rights for meatpacking workers in Nebraska:

* To be able to organize.

* To have a safe workplace.

* To have adequate facilities and the opportunity to use them.

* To have adequate equipment.

* To be given complete information.

* To be able to understand the information provided.

* To be aware of existing state and federal benefits and rights.

* To be free from discrimination.

* To have continuing training, including supervisor training.

* To receive compensation for work performed.

* To be able to seek state help.

For his initiative, Johanns won this testimonial in 2002: “His bold leadership sets a positive example for other states in creating the safest environment for meatpacking plant workers and creating a system by which workers are made aware of their rights,” the National Association of State Workforce Agencies declared.

We don’t expect to be able to judge from here whether the production lines in some plants we haven’t seen are going too fast.

But we know the former governor of our state, now the U.S. secretary of Agriculture, thought enough of the circumstances to act six years ago.

Since this interstate industry is supposed to be covered by federal laws and regulations governing everything from worker safety, to food safety, we think it would be appropriate for Secretary Johanns to declare the Nebraska meatpacking workers’ bill of rights a national policy.

And make it stick.

Six years ago, Milo Mumgaard, executive director of the Nebraska Appleseed Center, said the bill of rights was nothing more and nothing less than a recitation of rights that already exist in law.

Now, the secretary should commit to the enforcement of those rights on a national scale.