GREELEY, Colo .– Tin Aye has passed away without ever getting a hold of her newborn grandson.
During her six decades of life, she endured a heartbreaking exodus from her homeland in Myanmar as she was pregnant with her only child, followed by 15 years in a refugee camp. She and her daughter, San Twin, managed to forge a new life in the United States.
But she couldn’t survive her job at a slaughterhouse run by the world’s largest meat processing company, JBS. She died last year, one of six people who succumbed to Covid while working at a factory in Greeley, Colo.
Crucially, a lot has changed for the workers inside the long, low-slung abattoir in Greeley, a town of about 100,000 on the high plains of northern Colorado. In a new contract won last summer, the union secured substantial increases from JBS, the Brazilian conglomerate that owns the plant. Colorado passed a law mandating paid sick leave after the state shut down the plant for more than a week last year. Inside the slaughterhouse, bulkheads and partitions have been installed to help maintain social distancing.
But workers complain that many of the changes are aimed at managing perceptions, as stubborn issues persist: not enough distance between people stationed at certain parts of the assembly line, insufficient stocks of hand sanitizer, and subtle pressure. to come to work even when they are sick.
“It hits us if we are sick,” said Mariel Pastrana, 23, who has worked at the factory for almost three years and whose salary has risen from around $ 18 an hour to over $ 26 according to the company. the new contract. “They keep saying, ‘Production is slow, demand is increasing.’ “
JBS spokesperson Nikki Richardson disputed this characterization.
“Our goal throughout the global pandemic has been and continues to be to protect our team members from the virus and to do everything possible to keep it out of our facilities,” she wrote in a press release sent by email.
The Greeley plant, which paid $ 2,100 in bonuses to workers vaccinated against the coronavirus, achieved an 80% vaccination rate, Ms. Richardson added. The establishment has increased salaries by more than 50 percent over the past five years.
The experiences of factory workers reflect the imbalanced distribution of risks and rewards within the enterprise of turning cattle into beef.
The four biggest meat packers – including JBS – have collectively paid more than $ 3 billion in dividends to shareholders since the start of the pandemic, according to a recent White House analysis.
At the same time, many cattle ranchers go bankrupt. People who work in slaughterhouses – including immigrants from Latin America, Asia and Africa – say they still face a difficult choice between their security and their livelihood.
“People are scared,” said Anthony Martinez, 52, a father of six who has worked at the slaughterhouse for more than three years. “We are putting our lives on the line.”
He is part of the so-called breaking chain – a team of employees who work nearby, chopping entire livestock into small pieces.
“It’s heavy breathing,” he said.
After the state allowed the Greeley plant to reopen last year, management asked people on the broken line to stay six feet from each other, Mr Martinez said – a step that slowed down production. But last summer, workers were told to return to work within two feet.
The JBS spokeswoman declined to discuss details of the case, while confirming that social distancing rules vary. “There are areas within our facility where team members need to move around the department,” she said.
Signs throughout the factory urge people to stay home when they are sick. But workers say supervisors still sometimes urge them to keep showing up.
“The signs are just there so they can say they care about the employees, but they don’t,” said Agustina Gordo, 37, who has worked at the Greeley plant for four years.
Last year, during the first wave of the pandemic, factory managers told employees not to wear their own masks while urging them not to discuss Covid for fear of scaring the workforce. work, said Ms. Pastrana. Now, not wearing a mask can lead to disciplinary action, she added. Yet masks present their own dangers, misting goggles and preventing line workers from seeing clearly as they cut meat.
The JBS spokeswoman said workers “have access to wipes and anti-fog sprays to ensure they can perform their jobs safely while wearing masks.”
More than a year after her mother’s death, Ms Twin, 30, is struggling to tell the story without collapsing.
“My mother was the only family I had,” Ms Twin said as she held her son, Felix, now 20 months old. “I said, ‘Please don’t work in the factory anymore.’ She said, “I have to pay the bills. I am strong. It’ll be OK.'”
Ms Twin’s mother was a member of the Karen ethnic minority, which has long been engaged in armed struggle with the military in Myanmar. In the early 1990s, her family fled the border to a refugee camp in Thailand.
There, San Twin was born. She spent her first 15 years in a bamboo hut with no electricity or plumbing, while the family lived on donated rice and beans. Her mother cleaned houses, washed clothes, and tended pigs to earn money.
When she was 5, her father – a former soldier – briefly returned to Myanmar and was killed by the military for desertion, she says. Friends found her naked body floating in a river.
When the family were offered a choice of countries to settle in, they switched to the United States, hearing that anyone willing to work hard could find a job.
In August 2012, Ms Twin and her mother arrived in Denver, knowing no one and not speaking English. They moved into a cramped apartment. Her mother found night work at the Greeley slaughterhouse. She carpooled with other Karen immigrants, leaving at 1 p.m. and returning home at 4 a.m.
She started at $ 12 an hour.
“It was a lot of money for us,” Ms. Twin said.
Her mother’s job was to take the pieces of meat off the assembly line, wrap them, and put them in boxes. She stood for hours. The line was quick and relentless. Disinfectant chemicals were leaking from the ceilings. Bathroom breaks were infrequent: Sometimes Ms Aye would urinate in her clothes while working on the line, her daughter said. She came home with a sore back, swollen fingers, and bruises on her legs and arms.
Ms Twin got married in 2019 and soon became pregnant. Months later, she found herself following the emergence of the coronavirus in China. She imagined that it could easily spread inside a crowded slaughterhouse.
In early March, a man who worked behind his mother contracted the Covid. She begged her mother to stay home. But missing a job meant giving up his salary.
Three weeks before the birth of her grandson, Ms. Aye began to cough uncontrollably. Ms Twin urged her to go to the hospital, but her mother continued to work, even though she developed a fever.
Early on the morning of March 28, 2020, Ms. Twin began to suffer from painful contractions and shortness of breath. She made it through a snowstorm to the hospital. A test revealed that she had the Covid.
She called her mother. Mrs. Aye then had difficulty breathing. Ms. Twin eventually persuaded her mother to go to the hospital. There, he was diagnosed with Covid.
Ms Twin’s son was delivered later that day by emergency Caesarean section. The next day, while she was lying in the intensive care unit, her mother called from another hospital. Doctors had told him that his Covid was advanced.
“She was calling to say goodbye,” recalls Ms. Twin. “She said, ‘I really want to see you, but I can’t see you anymore.’ She told me to work hard for Felix. Just believe in the positive point of view and help yourself and others. And then she dropped the phone. I never spoke to him again.
Ms. Aye suffered two strokes and slipped into a coma. She was kept alive by a ventilator until she breathed her last on May 17, 2020.
“I always feel like she’s by my side,” Ms. Twin said.
JBS later gave her $ 6,000 for her mother’s funeral and never called to offer condolences, Ms Twin said.
For negligence leading to fatalities at the Greeley plant, the Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration subsequently fined JBS $ 15,615.