Workers in Iowa meat industry fear returning to work

ReQuia Campbell is a hairstylist and mother of five with family members who got sick with COVID-19 while working at a massive pork slaughterhouse in Waterloo, Iowa.

After her father came home sick from work at the Tyson Fresh Meats plant in early April, Campbell became alarmed.

Management at the plant – in the Midwest region of the United States – was not acting on workers’ concerns about spreading the coronavirus in close-quarter conditions at the plant, labour advocates said.

“I was devastated because he has 14 grandkids that he’s around. We were panicking like, ‘Are our kids going to get sick? What is going on?'” Campbell, 31, said.

Campbell and her friends launched a social media campaign and organised a protest urging the shutdown of the plant. After weeks of rising community pressure, the Tyson plant suspended operations on April 22. More than 1,000 of its nearly 3,000 workers tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and the infection has spread to the wider community and caused 20 deaths, according to local authorities.

Now, in a major test of President Donald Trump’s push to reopen the US economy, the Tyson plant in Waterloo is reopening even as COVID-19 case numbers continue to rise locally and nationwide. Workers and their families are fearful.

“A lot of people are on edge,” Campbell told Al Jazeera.

Trump used a wartime law on April 28 to direct meatpacking plants nationwide to continue operating during the pandemic to avert food shortages. More than 170 meat and poultry processing plants nationwide have reported COVID-19 outbreaks, according to the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting.

Before the coronavirus forced its shutdown, the Tyson plant in Waterloo slaughtered 19,500 hogs a day, producing 3.9 percent of the US pork supply. Farmers were forced to destroy their animals when the plant stopped running.

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