by Carlos Rich, cross-posted from Imagine 2050

Can you imagine being severely hurt at your job, then going to the company doctor only to be told that you’re fine and you need to return back to work immediately? This is what happens to many immigrants and refugees in the food processing plants around the Midwest. When I first came to Southeast Iowa about two and half years ago, the first person I met was Juan*. He approached me in town because he had not seen me there before, and he invited me to his house. As we talked I learned of his story.

He told me of being injured at work; a deep cut on his left thumb. He showed me the doctor’s report which read, “3 inch cut, on left thumb, applied band aid and gave him two, ibuprofen”… “worker was sent back to the line to cut meat on the processing line.”

I thought to myself, ‘this is so barbaric!’ I thought it was an isolated incident; it wasn’t.

Over the last few years I have been able to help workers receive a little justice for their injuries. The sad part of this is that not only do they get hurt, but some workers are fired not long after sustaining an injury. There was a time or two I attempted get workers their jobs back, but had no success.

I began to understand that the workers in this industry were merely seen as production tools by these companies. It’s not taken into account that they are humans who are working at high speed, doing the same repetitious work over and over again for eight to ten hours a day. The workers describe this as, “humans competing against machines.”

The reason for the high rate of injuries is primarily due to the high speed of the line and also inadequate supplies, such dull knives and other equipment that wears out quickly.

Time has passed and nothing has changed. Just earlier this month a worker named Felipe* had sustained an injury nine months back on his hand; it was carpal-tunnel syndrome. While he has been going to therapy, he had not gotten any better and has been doing the same task at work, cutting up meat for at least eight hours a day. Finally we found him representation and he was able to get a surgery. Felipe did lots of paperwork prior to his surgery and was approved for a week of recuperation by the state’s workers’ compensation agency. After Felipe was done with his surgery and was ready to go home the company doctor told him he needed to return to work, because he could due “light duty work”.

Shocked by the doctor’s request, Felipe had no choice but to do what the doctor said for fear of losing his job. He returned to work and the pain in his hand also returned. He called me the next day and informed me about what had taken place. I was appalled and sad. After talking with him I began speaking with other workers, asking them if this had ever happened to them. All the workers whom I knew had been injured in the past, and they all reported to me that this had happened to them. They also reported that it was common practice for the plant’s doctors to send them back to work immediately.

Felipe has been interested in the Health Action Councils, which have been emerging out of our work here in Southeast Iowa. He feels like he cannot do this on his own and is looking for support from other workers. Felipe and his co-workers feel that this treatment is wrong and want to expose companies that do not report injuries to the state and do not adhere to labor laws. He also wants to continue to help this nation by doing his work.

Food processing companies should respect and be responsible to workers and consumers. These doctors should respect the dignity of each patient, no matter who employs them.

*Names changed for privacy.

Carlos Rich is an Organizer with the Center for New Community, based in Columbus Junction, Iowa and working with immigrants and refugees in meatpacking and poultry processing plants on a range of community health and plant safety concerns. 

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