JBS' Workers Paid the Ultimate Price, While Profits Surged

As an industry, meatpackers seem to operate according to their own set of rules, often reprehensible and sometimes deadly. Among its global peers JBS, the world’s largest meatpacking company, is exceptional. The extent and documentation of its corporate irresponsibility is legion, rendered more so by the toll of workers falling sick or dying with COVID-19.

Butchers chop meat at a JBS packing plant in São Paulo, Brazil.

Credit: Reuters/Paulo Whitaker/Alamy

As an industry, meatpackers seem to operate according to their own set of rules, which may lead to reprehensible and sometimes deadly consequences. Among its global peers JBS, the world’s largest meatpacking company, is exceptional. The extent and documentation of its corporate irresponsibility is massive, rendered more so by the toll of workers falling sick or dying with COVID-19.  

JBS deserves its sordid reputation, as we document in a new issue brief. It’s been built on widespread corruption, illegal deforestation, as well as human rights abuses. For example, JBS has been accused of perpetuating slave-like conditions for workers. It’s also one of the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gases; its operations are estimated to produce around half of the comparable fossil fuel emissions of giants such as ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell, or BP. And, the company’s illegal deforestation practices drive wild animals out of their habitats, increasing the risk that zoonotic infections like COVID-19 will spread to humans.

JBS USA, a fully-owned subsidiary, is the second largest meatpacker in the United States. The Brazil-based conglomerate is reportedly planning an Initial Public Offering (IPO) to spin off the huge U.S. subsidiary into a separate company. By doing so, the parent company could rebrand its US-based assets, distancing them from the especially well-documented record of corruption, abuses and irresponsible practices back in Brazil.

Now’s the time when JBS’ ignoble history deserves more, not less, public attention—especially from regulators and investors. Expansion of its irresponsible practices constitutes a significant risk to both people and the planet.

JBS Sacrificed Health and Safety of Workers  

A worker heads into the JBS meatpacking plant Monday, Oct. 12, 2020, in Greeley, Colorado.

Credit: AP Photo/David Zalubowski

In 2020, JBS posted record net revenues of $51.7 billion. The company’s priority throughout the pandemic was to keep meat processing plants running, with as many workers as possible. JBS’ workers in both Brazil and the U.S. have reported a culture where paid sick leave is lacking—effectively forcing employees to work while sick—and where rules and norms around social distancing and wearing face masks were routinely not enforced.

Without even basic safety measures in place, the subsequent outbreaks at two of JBS’ largest plants in the U.S. were probably inevitable -- the beef plant in Greeley, Colorado and the pork plant in Worthington, Minnesota. At the Greeley plant, for example, cases mounted rapidly after the first worker tested positive for COVID-19 on March 3, 2020. By July 12, that single plant contributed 65 percent of Colorado’s total COVID-19 cases. That same month, worker advocacy groups filed a civil rights complaint against JBS, as well as Tyson Foods, citing their failure to prevent coronavirus outbreaks among their largely minority workers. According to the union local representing workers at the Greeley plant, 70 percent of them are immigrants and people of color. By September 2020, nearly 300 of the plants workers had been infected with COVID-19 and 6 died, and JBS was cited for two OSHA violations and received a paltry fine of $15,160. JBS quickly contested the citations and refused payment of the fine. JBS also denied payment of worker’s compensation claims lodged by survivors of three of the Greeley plant's six dead employees.

Outbreaks of COVID-19 also began hitting Brazil’s meat plants in March/April 2020. Prosecutors and labor lawyers soon organized to protect workers, petitioning to shut down some of the worst-hit plants. Several months into the pandemic, JBS SA remained the only meatpacker in in Brazil to resist an agreement with the Brazilian Public Labor Ministry (MPT) to improve worker safety. Not until MPT pushed to stop operations at 12 JBS SA plants, did the company finally take steps to protect the health of its workers. At that time, all workers were then tested for COVID-19, and some were provided with PPE. For example, all workers were supplied with PFF2 masks (the Brazilian equivalent of N95). Even then, however, JBS SA refused to offer workers replacement masks on a daily basis, causing employees to reuse contaminated masks for an entire week or more. By August 2020, the MPT estimated that one in five Brazilian meatpacking workers had contracted COVID-19, making it one of the world’s worst sector-wide workplace outbreaks.

JBS Plants Serve as Vectors in Spreading COVID-19 to Surrounding Communities

In the small Brazilian town of São Miguel do Guaporé, for example, 40 percent of workers at the JBS plant became infected, constituting more than half of the town’s entire COVID-19 caseload. And in Colíder, a town in the northern state of Mato Grosso, meatpacking workers at a JBS plant accounted for about 17 percent of the city’s confirmed cases in July 2020.

In the US, a recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concluded that meatpacking plants in the U.S. served as vectors in spreading COVID-19 into communities. As of July 21, 2020, the study estimates U.S. meat processing plants were associated with 236,000 to 310,000 COVID-19 cases (6 to 8 percent of the U.S. total at the time), along with 4,300 to 5,200 deaths (3 to 4 percent of the U.S. total). In Greeley, CO, the JBS plant today remains the site of Colorado’s third largest outbreak over the entire course of the pandemic.

COVID-19’s outsized impact on meatpacking workers, and on the communities surrounding meatpacking plants, has been tragic but not unpredictable. More surprising, perhaps, has been how the dangers and harm have played out so disproportionately across the most vulnerable populations. In Brazil, the impacts have been particularly disastrous among Indigenous people, who face high risks of transmission. For example, COVID-19 entered the Dourados Indigenous reserve through JBS employees who tested positive; more than 150 residents were eventually infected, 90 percent of whom were directly or indirectly associated with JBS SA, according to the state secretary of health. By mid-July 2020, the Indigenous Reserve closest to Dourados also became a COVID-19 hot spot, reporting around 30 percent of the total cases in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul.

Unsavory business practices appear to be the glue that ties JBS together. COVID-19 shed more light on how workers and communities near meatpacking plants suffer when JBS and other meatpackers shirk their corporate responsibility, and ignore the impact of plant conditions and practices on worker safety and public health. With a looming US expansion, the public and investors have an opportunity to speak out about JBS’s legacy of corporate irresponsibility and hold them accountable for their bad behavior.  

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