September 11, 2020


US Labour Department fines Smithfield Foods for failing to protect workers from COVID-19


The United States Labour Department has cited Smithfield Foods for not protecting its workers from COVID-19, becoming the first major meatpacker in the country to be fined since the pandemic began, Reuters reported.


However, labour unions and safety advocates said the government should do more to protect meat plant workers as they are important to the country's food supply.


A statement from the Labour Department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) said Smithfield "failed to provide a workplace free from recognised hazards that can cause death or serious harm" to its workers at its Sioux Falls, South Dakota plant.


The statement said 1,294 workers from Smithfield Foods tested positive for COVID-19, with four workers dead.


OHSA proposed fine to Smithfield Foods is US$13,494, the highest allowed by law.


David Michaels, a professor of environmental and occupational health at George Washington University, said the fine is too low. He served as US assistant secretary of labor for OSHA under the previous Obama administration.


Michaels said the small fine is a signal that Smithfield Foods and other major US meatpackers do not need to be worried about OHSA.


Keira Lombardo, spokeswomen for Smithfield, said the company will contest the citation as they believe it is without merit. She said the company has implement measures to protect workers and invested US$350 million in relation to COVID-19 safety during the second quarter of this year.


Smithfied's Sioux Falls plant was closed in April after COVID-19 infections spread among workers. The plant accounts for 5% of all US pork production.


Smithfield Foods sued OHSA in July to stop a subpoena issued as part of a federal probe into the Sioux Falls plant. Both parties came to a resolution and the case was dismissed.


Marc Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) International Union, said the US government cares more about industry profits than protecting meat plant workers because it failed to hold Smithfield accountable. The UFCW International Union is the country's biggest meatpacking union.


OHSA California cited two small-scale meatpackers, one frozen food manufacturer and eight agriculture or farm-labor contracting companies for failing to protect their workers from COVID-19.


OHSA California proposed a US$200,000 fine to food manufacturer Overhill Farms and its temporary employment agency Jobsource North America. Overhill Farms will contest the citation. Jobsource was unreachable for comment.


-      Reuters