Meatpacking: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO)

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LastWeekTonight

The pandemic has thrown into high relief some of the longstanding issues surrounding working conditions in meatpacking facilities. John Oliver explains why greater oversight is needed, and how we can go about getting it. Connect with Last Week Tonight online... Subscribe to the Last Week Tonight YouTube channel for more almost news as it almost happens: www.youtube.com/lastweektonight Find Last Week Tonight on Facebook like your mom would: www.facebook.com/lastweektonight Follow us on Twitter for news about jokes and jokes about news: www.twitter.com/lastweektonight Visit our official site for all that other stuff at once: www.hbo.com/lastweektonight

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Video Transcript:

Moving on for our main story tonight we're going to talk about a product that is wildly popular in this country but instead of telling you what it is i'd rather show you an ad for it i promise if you have never seen this commercial before you will never guess what it's for mom i think chubby's been drinking too much milk Sometimes you just don't feel like cooking so i've come up with new purdue entrees fresh complete entrees ready in under three minutes well that took a turn and what exactly does jim perdue think he's doing there that family doesn't need one of your shitty frozen meals they need someone to expel the literal devil from their demented guinea pig Perform an exorcism gym or get the out of their house the point is our main story tonight concerns meat it's what i technically am to any animal above me on the food chain like a bear or a tiger or if we're being totally honest a medium aggressive pigeon and if you're thinking okay i know where this is going this is going to be a grim story about the conditions animals face in factory farms You're actually wrong those conditions are horrific but they do get talked about a lot this story is going to be about the grim conditions humans are facing working in meat packing facilities if you ate meat today it probably went through one of them and meat packing is a highly consolidated industry roughly 85 percent of beef production in america is controlled by these four Companies and more than half of the chicken industry is controlled by these four their employees are extremely important to this country's food supply and to hear companies like tyson tell it they're important to them on a personal level too we've all got the same end goal in mind protect our team members they're our most valuable asset they are our family i said Earlier that we're a food company but we're a family and that's genuinely how i feel and how we operate okay if tyson's workers are their most valuable asset than their workers are by definition not family because let's be honest nobody's family is their most valuable asset if you're gonna rank everything in life by how much you value it it goes number one your phone number two food water and shelter number Three judy dench she's a treasure and then and only then your family that's just an empirical fact but second it's a little hard to take tyson's workers rr family talk given this stunning allegations made against managers at this tyson pork processing plant in waterloo iowa one of the first to shut down when the coronavirus raged Uncontrollably in the spring a supervisor allegedly taking bets on how many would catch the virus according to the allegations the plant manager of the waterloo facility organized a cash buy-in winner-take-all betting pool for supervisors and managers to wager how many employees would test positive for coveted 19. holy that betting pool might be the most disgusting thing Ever created in a tyson factory which is frankly saying something given that tyson also makes ranch flavored chicken chips a snack one customer reviewed online with a note disgusting i gagged in front of my child that review is on tyson's actual website now tyson fired seven managers at that plant after that incident but it does speak to a larger problem in this industry because while companies Have put out endless press statements about the expense they've gone to to protect their workers during this pandemic workers themselves dispute those claims heavily and they've been hit hard as of february 18th at least 57 000 meatpacking workers have contracted the virus and at least 280 have died but the broader truth is that the treatment of workers in this industry Has been very bad for a very long time so tonight let's look at them and let's start with how plants operate most feature a series of long conveyor belts with workers packed closely along the line chopping deboning or trimming fat often at breakneck speed maximum allowable line speeds in poultry have actually doubled since 1979 with workers Reporting averaging 35 to 45 birds per minute that is less than two seconds per bird that's fast in the time it's taken me to explain line speeds to you a plant could have processed five whole birds and look there's plenty of activities that should only take two seconds checking the time clearing your throat determining the worth of a total Stranger by how much you want to them hey i get it but safely butchering a chicken probably shouldn't be one of them and thanks to this relentless pace meatpacking workers have reported it can be hard to take a break even to go to the bathroom which may explain stories like this this is security camera video given to our sister station from the smithfield Production line in virginia in the video you see the employee in front take off his gloves company officials confirmed the man relieves himself under the production line then puts his gloves back on and continues to work the worker at the center of all this has been suspended pending the outcome of the investigation that is disgusting well yeah it is the combination of urine and pork is a Bit upsetting it's one of the many reasons i have no interest in seeing miss piggy's sex tape but it is not just that that man urinated under the production line is that he was put in a position where he may have felt like he had to that is actually a problem across the meatpacking industry oxfam released a report detailing exactly how grim conditions can be for poultry workers With one detail in particular that hit this local michigan talk show hard poultry industry workers are put through such extremes that they're denied bathroom breaks many wearing diapers during their work oh my goodness i know that people need jobs and they need to be employed but to have to stand in your own stuff yeah while you're working my mind is racing while you're sharing those Details and thinking surely this is not in our country okay i get the shock there i really do but the thing is this is totally our country we live in a nation where hundreds of thousands of homeless sleep on the streets people have to launch gofundme campaigns for medical treatment and where george zimmerman can auction off the gun he used to kill trayvon Martin a horrific story which by the way your show actually covered in this segment directly before that one so you guys have been doing a pretty good job of showing how up this country can be and it's not just bathroom break issues meatpacking has some of the highest rates of occupational injury and illness in the country in fact in a recent three year period a worker In the meat and poultry industry lost a body part or was sent to the hospital for inpatient treatment about every other day and a lot of this is down to dangerous working conditions plants are so crowded a common injury is a cut from your neighbor's knife and those rapid line speeds can exacerbate other problems such as repetitive stress injuries like carpal Tunnel syndrome all of which can leave workers feeling pretty disposable i mean you got two thousand homes an hour going through you're covered with blood feces urine it's easy to get hurt down there you're doing that same movement for that same piece of the hog and it's non-stop you know basically you treat it as a human machine look that is clearly terrible Nobody should be treated like a machine unless of course it is a fun machine like an immersion blender i'd love to be treated like an immersion blender you want me to stay in a comfy drawer most of the day and then occasionally come out to robot a soup yes please look at this point you might be wondering how do companies get away with treating their workers like this well many strategically locate their plants In areas with few other job opportunities and target vulnerable groups like former prisoners refugees and especially immigrants for hiring roughly 175 000 immigrants work in meat packing jobs in america they understandably may be wary about complaining to authorities about mistreatment so many workers are already operating at a deep disadvantage on top of which Companies have been able to minimize accountability by gaming the system for instance they are required to report serious injuries to the government's worker protection agency osha but there is a simple way around that because you actually don't have to report those injuries if treatment stays at a first aid level so what do you think happens Well as a gao report found plants simply offer first aid treatments on site rather than refer workers to a doctor that same report found even workers with severe injuries like fractures weren't sent to doctors with one worker who developed a muscular skeletal disorder making over 90 visits to the company's nurse before being referred to a physician and the workers know the game that is Being played here there's a nurse but she doesn't do anything for you for example when our arms hurt all she did was apply bengay ointment and sent us on our way it's not even worth going i needed to see a doctor but they refused me and i asked i told him well can i go down to see my own orthopedics my own specialist my own doctor they said if you do that we're Gonna fire you look there are lots of good reasons to fire someone frequent absences poor quality of work because they get a little racisty on ambien but wanting to see a doctor really should not be one of them and it's worth noting if you do have a severe injury it can be very hard to get relief in theory you can apply for workers Compensation programs under which injured workers lose their ability to sue but in exchange can get money to cover medical treatment and lost wages the thing is those programs are run at the state level and paid into by companies who've lobbied hard both to hollow those benefits out and make them harder to get just before texas overhauled its workers comp system back in 1989. one poultry ceo beau Pilgrim tried to personally influence proceedings in a pretty blatant way senator bob glasgow of stephenville says he's never been offered a blank ten thousand dollar check not until east texas chicken king bo pilgrim strutted onto the senate floor wednesday senator hugh palmer of fort worth says pilgrim then slipped him either a bribe or an illegal campaign contribution well I didn't think he was trying to give me a christmas present i'll tell you that yeah of course he wasn't because christmas presents aren't typically used as bribes that is unless you're a child of divorce here it is billy a full-size motorcycle just like you asked for i think you should have it and if your mother doesn't well that is on her she's a difficult woman billy And look just a quick word about beau pilgrim here he co-founded a company called pilgrim's pride and blank checks to legislators aren't even the most shameless thing he spent money on during his life among other things he had this 37-foot bust of his head installed next to one of his distribution centers and added this second statue underneath it depicting him reading a bible To his pet chicken henrietta he also built this hellacious mansion which locals referred to as cluckingham palace and which included among other atrocities this absolute nightmare of a bathroom that fittingly has the exact colour scheme of a raw chicken breast and this nauseating foyer featuring a painting of what appears to be two peacocks above some chickens While a perverted owl just watches and it wasn't just bo pilgrim fighting workers comp laws tyson has taken a lead in pushing for changes in workers comp in state after state which have made it harder for workers hurt on the job to receive payments in fact in texas it is now possible for companies to opt out of paying into workers comp entirely and essentially write their Own rules for how much workers get for their injuries tyson does exactly that and when workers get injured in their plants there in order to get medical care from the company they must first sign a document saying they voluntarily release waive and forever give up claims arising from their injuries now could you not sign that sure but then your best bet to pay for medical coverage Is to sue the company and that could take years and while texas does now have a law giving workers 10 days to consider signing the waiver before then they could actually be pressured on the spot at another company an employee who'd had both of his hands crushed was persuaded to sign a waiver with a pen held in his teeth and look i know that This all sounds very bad and it does imply that companies like tyson don't care about the physical well-being of their workers but that's actually not true because they do seem to care very much about the physical well-being of some of their workers employees at tyson fresh meets corporate offices in dakota dunes are getting out from behind their desk All right looks good guys and into a healthy routine every tuesday and thursday we offer an on-site fitness class for any employee who wants to come we focused on stretching at your desk a lot of us sit at a desk a lot of times so even just getting up and stretching just that little bit of movement throughout the day helps too we had a workshop on meditation last week and it was pretty good Clearing your mind and relaxing stuff you can do at work you know what it's true meditation is great for clearing your mind you just have to sit still focus on your breath and try not to think about the local camera crew that's filming a piece about your corporate office culture that will one day be uncomfortably juxtaposed with how appallingly your company treats workers in its factories now Are those thoughts going to creep into your mind sure but just acknowledge them and return to your breath namaste now clearly the contrast between tyson's corporate offices and their plants is stark almost as stark as the disparity between their salaried workers over 73 of whom are white and their hourly workers over 60 of whom are black asian or latino it's just a fun fact i'm throwing in there For no particular reason now ideally you would want the government to step in and remedy some of what you've seen unfortunately osha is woefully understaffed as of last april its number of inspectors had dropped to a 45-year low in fact at current staffing levels it would take osha 165 years to inspect every workplace under its jurisdiction And even on the rare occasions that inspectors do get to visit the plants the limits to what they're allowed to do once they're in there can be genuinely ridiculous in the southeast where a huge proportion of the poultry industry resides there is actually a lawsuit that has successfully prevented osha inspectors from doing broader searches in poultry Factories even when they know workers are getting seriously injured in one case an inspector was told to put a box over her head so she wouldn't see any safety hazards in the plant if she wanted to walk through the plant to investigate a fire okay not to state the obvious here but put a box on your head is not an instruction you give when Everything is up to code it's just inherently suspicious right this way inspector now if you'll also just please plug your nose and spin around three times we can begin the tour and even when osha finds violations their power to do anything is incredibly weak in 2019 the average fine for a serious safety violation a hazard where there is a substantial probability Of death or serious physical harm was just over thirty seven hundred dollars meaning it can genuinely be cheaper for companies to run an unsafe plant and occasionally pay those fines than for them to provide a safe work environment and all of this came to a head last year when the pandemic hit companies corporate workers immediately worked from home because it wasn't safe For them to be in the office but the plants were kept open despite the fact as you have seen it's nearly impossible to socially distance on a line and when workers entirely predictably then started dying the federal response was characteristically weak after six workers from a jbs plant in colorado died from kobed the company's total fine was just Fifteen thousand dollars and for the family of saul sanchez one of those workers that understandably didn't sit well saul sanchez worked for the company for nearly three decades and never called in sick a single time he was the first jbs worker to die of coven 19 and his family says his funeral costs more than the fine this company is now facing It's a huge slap on the face and they bring in over 50 billion dollars a year and they get slapped with 15 000 that's what enables these companies to not care for their employees yeah exactly that fine amounts to point zero zero zero zero three percent of jbs's profits last year and if you find a company a fraction of a percent of their profits don't be surprised when they carry on Only giving a fraction of a about the welfare of their workers now legally i have to tell you jbs claims that that fine and the government's finding that they fail to protect their employees from exposure to covid is entirely without merit not only that they are even fighting the claims for workers comp survivor benefits from saul sanchez's widow and others who've lost loved ones their argument Being that the coveted infections were not work related although to be honest that's a hard argument for them to land given that the outbreak got so bad there at one point they had to shut the plant down so what can we do here well at least for the duration of the pandemic osha should implement a federal emergency workplace standard giving meat Packing workers the right to social distancing and other protections longer term that agency needs to be rebuilt and strengthened and it can't stop there the usda should do more to ensure lines move at safe speeds and when it comes to workers comp we should be setting a baseline for what states have to offer because otherwise the race to the bottom will just continue and all of this has To be done quickly because things are critical right now remember that tyson plant with the winner take all betting pool as of mid-december more than 1500 employees there contracted the virus and eight died so if tyson truly is a family like they love to claim it does seem to be a pretty dysfunctional one and when you take All of this together the diapers the endless trips to the nursing station the injuries and the deaths you frankly only need to take a peek inside the way this industry currently operates to draw a pretty simple conclusion that is disgusting yeah it is it really is

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