This is an excerpt from an op-ed originally published in the Baltimore Sun. You can read the full op-ed here.
President Donald Trump invoked the Defense Production Act to order meat and poultry plants to continue operating despite COVID-19 outbreaks, exposing Maryland's poultry workers to enormous risks. Poultry processors haven't demonstrated they're able to keep workers safe and healthy, but they know that many of these low-wage workers will be forced to return. To top it all off, one of the president's goals with this order was to provide legal immunity to companies, so that they can't be sued by employees who are infected as a result of unsafe working conditions.
All the risks cascade down onto the workers. Many are from immigrant backgrounds and don't speak English. They're also exempted from vital protections, federal relief packages, and can't access COVID-19 treatment and care. We're standing in solidarity with these brave workers, and urging everyone else to do so, too.
COVID-19 has been wreaking havoc on workers forced to continue working in crowded conditions, with few breaks or protective gear, in the region's poultry processing facilities. Their employers' failures to control these hazards have resulted in a rapid escalation in COVID-19 cases and workers calling in sick in record numbers. With fewer workers on-site, plant operators had to slow down the fast-moving processing lines and the entire supply chain – from egg hatcheries to contract growing operations – went out of whack.
Those of us who have spent years challenging the economic, racial and environmental injustices of our current food system know this crisis was baked in through decades of industry consolidation, vertical integration and legal loopholes that are built on racist and exploitative conditions.
Farming families and the hardworking folks who meticulously dress the birds and package the good stuff for grocery shelves work hard to feed the world under conditions the company owners would never contemplate enduring themselves. Every day these front line workers are taking on health, safety and economic risks that they shouldn't have to. They are risks that ought to be eliminated by the huge corporations that have the power and the money to do so.