Virus-hit South Dakota pork workers say health was on chopping block

Sioux Falls (United States) (AFP) –


Andom Yosef spent his nights butchering unlucky pigs in the state of South Dakota for years, but now, he and more than 700 colleagues -- most of them immigrants -- have found their own luck ran out: infected with coronavirus.

The immigrant, a former Eritrean refugee in Ethiopia, arrived in the rural US state in 2007, dreaming of a better life.

He never complained about the particularly harsh work conditions: "My job is not too hard compared to others," he said.

The night shifts, cold temperatures and overcrowding on the meat processing lines were small prices to pay to escape the refugee camp where he had spent seven years.

If the thankless physical labor was repetitive and unrewarding, it was also the key to a new future.

But when the number of coronavirus cases began exploding inside the plant's brick walls, Yosef, 38, became concerned.

"I tried to get tested," Yosef said.

A few days after getting an appointment "they told me I was positive and I didn't have to go to work, I had to stay at home."

In quarantine for nearly two weeks now with his partner and two children, Yosef said no one in the family, himself included, has shown any symptoms.

As part of one of the nation's biggest COVID-19 clusters, one resulting in two deaths and the plant's closure, Yosef, who spoke to AFP from his stoop while wearing a mask, is sitting things out -- for the moment.

- Tower of Babel -

Smithfield Foods employs some 3,700 people in Sioux Falls, the largest city in South Dakota, a state known for corn fields and cattle ranches.

Workers slaughter, slice, cook up and package thousands of pigs that arrive daily at the huge complex on the banks of the Big Sioux River.

The plant is an industrial Tower of Babel, the workplace of refugees and immigrants who, having fled Latin America, Asia and Africa, rub shoulders among rows of butchered pigs and slabs of meat.

Many are grateful simply to have found a paying job earning slightly above minimum wage, doing a type of work that requires little previous qualification.

Abebe Lamesgin, a 54-year-old carpenter, arrived in the United States some 15 years ago with his wife, who is a Smithfield employee. They liked Smithfield.

"We raised our kids" thanks to it, he said.

But their American dream -- a house with a garage in a tidy residential suburb, their two eldest children having received college degrees -- soured when Lamesgin's wife came down with coronavirus.

"The company I work with gave us an awareness about the disease and how we have to be careful," Lamesgin said. "I don't think Smithfield did the same. They didn't do anything."

"We know they have to have profits, they have to make money, that's a good thing," said Lamesgin, who is also a priest at an Ethiopian Orthodox church.

"But they have to care about the people, you know. Without people, no benefit," he added, index finger raised, like a preacher before his flock.

Ironically and seemingly symbolizing the endless reaches of globalization, Smithfield Foods, nestled on the Dakota prairie, belongs to a conglomerate from China, the very country where the coronavirus originated.

- 'Shoulder-to-shoulder' -

Kooper Caraway, a young local union president, said "the alarm was raised" in early March concerning coronavirus but Smithfield's management "didn't take the situation seriously enough until it was too late."

"It's an old building, the hallways and staircases are very narrow. They're changing clothes shoulder-to-shoulder in the locker room, they're eating shoulder-to-shoulder in the lunch room," the 29-year-old union leader said.

"The plant wasn't built for social distancing."

The result: an explosion of more than 900 cases -- 761 employees and 143 relatives and other friends and loved ones, according to the latest figures out Tuesday. Among the cases have been two deaths.

Smithfield said in a press release to AFP that it is "doing everything in our power to help protect our team members from COVID-19 in the workplace."

It lists a series of measures put into place: a proliferation of gel disinfectant dispensers, installation of Plexiglas screens and temperature checks at the plant entrance.

- $500 bonus -

The company also "strongly" rejects the claim that it was trying to force the hand of workers by promising a $500 bonus to employees who do not take any sick days in April.

Instead, it said the bonus is "recognition of an immense gratefulness for the dedication and performance" of workers, but unions see such payments as "irresponsible" incentives to come to work even when sick.

"It is much easier to write a check than sitting down and doing a critical analysis of their production model and safety procedures," Caraway, the union leader, said.

Under pressure from state authorities, the Sioux Falls plant, which accounts for four to five percent of US pork production, closed on April 12 until further notice.

The columns of smoke that usually rise above the city have dissipated. Semi-trailer trucks remain empty in front of loading docks. And only a few abandoned cars occupy the huge employee parking lot.

Yosef, who is being paid by the company during his quarantine, says he is "not scared." Once the plant reopens, he plans to return to work feeding confined Americans.