The processor has faced criticisms that it has failed to protect workers during the pandemic and didn’t enforce adequate social distancing measures, putting staff at risk of contracting the virus.
A complaint with the above allegations was filed against the company last week in federal court by an anonymous Smithfield Foods worker and the Rural Community Workers Alliance however the business has refuted these claims.
The business has temporarily closed facilities due to the coronavirus, including the Sioux Falls site in South Dakota where many of the allegations stem.
In a lengthy statement, Smithfield Foods responded to “assertions and inferences that grossly mischaracterise the company”.
In relation to the allegation that it is prioritising profit over worker safety it said: “We believe it is our obligation to help feed the country, now more than ever. Operating is not a question of profits; it is a question of necessity.
“During this pandemic, our entire industry is faced with an impossible choice: continue to operate to sustain our nation’s food supply or shutter in an attempt to entirely insulate our employees from risk. It’s an awful choice; it’s not one we wish on anyone. It is impossible to keep protein on tables across America if our nation’s meat plants are not running. Across the animal protein industry, closures can have severe, perhaps disastrous, repercussions up and down the supply chain.”
The business has been accused of exploiting its employees and is blaming community transmission and employees’ ethnic or national origin the spread of coronavirus. In response, it said: “For decades, we have been an integral part of many communities across the country, including Sioux Falls. We proudly provide an opportunity for thousands of employees, many of whom have come to our country in pursuit of the American Dream, to make a living and provide for their families
“We’re proud of the multi-culturalism on display every day throughout many of our facilities, including in Sioux Falls. Our employees are our strength. They come from all over the world and speak dozens of languages and dialects. Our position is this: We cannot fight this virus by finger-pointing. We all have a responsibility to slow the spread. At Smithfield, we are a family and we will navigate these truly challenging and unprecedented times together. Our employees are the beating heart of our facilities and we are grateful to them.”
It has been claimed that Smithfield Foods’ Responsibility Bonus is a ‘bribe’ to keep employees reporting to work even when they are sick. The Responsibility Bonus is a wage supplement for workers introduced by the business during the pandemic. To this allegation, Smithfield Foods said: “We have absolutely no motivation – in fact, we are disincentivized – to have sick team members reporting to work.”
Another allegation made was that Smithfield Foods wasn’t doing enough to protect workers, including the provision of masks.
It said: “We are doing everything in our power to help protect our team members from COVID-19 in the workplace. We moved quickly to implement an extensive array of COVID-19 protocols and practices.”
According to the company statement, these practices included mass thermal scanning; boosted personal protective equipment including masks; physical barriers to enhance social distancing and increased hand sanitising stations.
Smithfield Foods added: “Meat processing facilities, which are characterized by labor intensive assembly line style production, are not designed for social distancing. Employees often work in close proximity on production lines. Similarly, space constraints exist in common areas such as cafeterias, break and locker rooms and bathrooms. These areas pose additional challenges. Consequently, mitigating risk of COVID-19 transmission depends on implementing other aggressive actions, which have already been adopted companywide. We continue to actively monitor Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance, as well as that of state and local health authorities, and are immediately taking all necessary actions to protect our employees.”