Tag Archives: Coronavirus

Whose Lives Matter?

By Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

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Even though Covid-19 has been taking a heavy toll on workers in the meat industry, late last month President Trump issued an executive order demanding that meat-processing plants must resume operations. The effect of this order is to confront workers with a horrendous choice: either risk losing their jobs or risk losing their lives. With meat-processing plants becoming hot spots for Covid-19, many workers are terrified about going back to work.

The Priority of Profit

The well-known saying of Jesus, “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath,” might be reformulated with regard to the economy: “The economy should serve the needs of people; people should not be made to serve the economy.” Yet the logic of modern corporate capitalism often dictates just the opposite, that people be subordinated to the demands of the economy, an omnivorous giant that feeds off a steady stream of human sweat, blood, and tears.

With the profit motive as its driving vector, the mammoth corporation directs all the components of its complex operational system toward profit maximization. When profits stagnate or decline, the company may freely adopt whatever measures are needed to change course and push earnings back on an upward curve, often without regard for the physical well-being of its employees. While labor unions earlier formed a bulwark against corporate abuse, the decline of unions has given corporations license to get their way without fear of resistance.

A particularly egregious example of this inversion of ethical priorities came to light at the end of April when President Trump invoked the Defense Production Act to compel meat-processing facilities to resume operations. In March and April, these plants had become hot spots for Covid-19. By the end of April, at least twenty workers had died from the disease and over 5,000 were infected. Since then even more workers have been infected and died, but a shortage of testing equipment prevents us from knowing the exact numbers.

As infections spread, state and local authorities used their power to order some of the most badly contaminated plants to close, a measure considered necessary to protect public health. In sum, during those two months, thirteen meatpacking and food-processing plants shut down, including some of the nation’s biggest. In response, the executives of the giant meat corporations mounted a campaign of opposition, claiming that the closing of the meat plants would endanger the national food supply. John Tyson, chairman of the board of Tyson Foods, the world’s second largest meat processor, published a full-page ad in major newspapers, including the New York Times, warning that “the food supply chain is breaking.”

Enter the Defense Protection Act

This message got through to the president, who invoked the Defense Protection Act to demand that the plants reopen. The DPA was originally adopted to grant the federal government the authority to order private industries to produce materials and equipment needed in times of war. But Trump used it, not for national defense against a hostile military power, but to protect the meat industry from declining profits.

The president’s executive order states that the closure of meat-processing plants by state and local authorities has been “undermining critical infrastructure during the national emergency,” and he called on the Secretary of Agriculture to “take all appropriate action… to ensure that meat and poultry processors continue operations consistent with the guidance for their operations jointly issued by the CDC and OSHA,” that is, by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Trump’s decree puts in jeopardy not only the workers themselves, but their families and communities. Meat-processing workers often live in multi-generational households with scant opportunity for quarantine or social distancing. In such tightly cramped quarters, if a younger worker becomes infected with the virus, even if they remain asymptomatic, they might easily infect other members of the household; for older relatives infection may prove fatal. But for the president, such concerns are subordinate to those about the meat supply. In the words of Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union: “We only wish that this administration cared as much about the lives of working people as it does about meat, pork and poultry products.”

Despite the rhetoric of “critical infrastructure” and a “national emergency,” a continuous supply of meat is in no way essential to meeting our country’s nutritional needs. Our obsession with meat may actually be harmful to our health. While reduced availability of meat might agonize those who crave the taste of beef, pork, and chicken, it’s not going to undermine their health. The demand to reopen the meatpacking plants is driven primarily by the wish to guarantee that profits from the sale of meat continue to flow into the coffers of the food corporations, sustaining the salaries of executives and the dividends of shareholders. The costs will be borne by those forced to return to work, who will be sacrificing their health and even their lives on the altar of the plant. To step into a processing plant at a time when many workers are carrying the virus, untested and undetected, is to place at risk one’s health and even one’s life.

Adding to the tension between management and the workforce, between capital and labor, is an underlying racial and ethnic dynamic. A large number of workers in the meat-processing industry are Latinos, Asians, and African Americans; many are immigrants or members of immigrant families. Thus the demand that the plants be reopened, and that workers return to their jobs, suggests that an unspoken premise behind the injunction is a judgment that black and brown lives—the lives of the workers—are of less value than the lives of the owners and managers and thus may be sacrificed to ensure the plants remain operative.

In the words of Frank Sharry, executive director of the immigrant organization America’s Voice: “Trump sees business owners as his people and he sees a diverse group of workers as expendable…. For ‘essential workers’ it’s ‘get back to work’ and ‘voluntary’ guidelines at pandemic hot spots. For a CEO class that’s white and wealthy it’s profits and legal liability protections.”

A Terrifying Choice

What the workers want and need is access to the federal stockpile of masks and other protective gear, daily testing, enforced physical distancing, and full paid sick leave during periods of illness. When protective equipment at the plants is in short supply, it’s hardly surprising that workers fear losing the most precious possession they have, their own life. As one local organizer in Iowa told Amy Goodman of Democracy Now!:

I have family working across the board, across the state and into some other states, in the industry. So, you know, it’s very scary for my family, my immediate family, my extended family. I have cousins who now have tested positive because of these plants. My sister and her husband have tested positive here just recently because of these plants. And again, [we’re] just incredibly scared.

The president’s executive order does nothing to allay these fears. It does not make the protective guidelines mandatory, but instead shields the meat companies from legal liability in cases of workplace exposure to the virus. Any company legally challenged can claim that, in reopening during the pandemic, it was merely following a decree issued by the highest authority in the land.

The demand for the continued operation of the plants forces the workers to choose between their jobs and their lives—a terrifying choice that no one should ever have to face. If, from fear of contracting the virus, workers stay back from work, they may well lose their jobs and the income they need to support themselves and their families. If, to maintain their household, they report to work, they risk contracting the virus and losing their lives.

A Crisis of American Democracy

The perilous choice faced by workers in the meat industry represents, in microcosm, the crisis in American democracy, pointing to the big question too often hidden behind discussions of everyday social issues: Who does the government represent—ordinary people or the moneyed interests that contribute to campaigns and flood Congress with lobbyists?

The answer, which is obvious, underscores the need for a radical overhaul of the economic paradigm that currently reigns, that of corporate capitalism grounded upon an ideology of free-market fundamentalism. In the ultimate analysis, to preserve our political democracy, we must institute economic democracy, transitioning to a system that gives workers fuller control over their terms of employment. But such changes are long-term goals. In the short term, with a pandemic raging that has already taken more American lives than the Vietnam war, what is needed is a slate of workplace regulations, rigorously enforced, that ensures workers remain safe at their jobs.

It would certainly be desirable, too, if meat were to be knocked from its place as the centerpiece of the standard American diet in favor of plant-based sources of protein. Apart from its cruel treatment of billions of helpless animals and the merciless death it inflicts at the slaughterhouses, livestock cultivation is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and a leading cause of deforestation, water and air pollution, and biodiversity loss. Raising animals for food requires vast amounts of land, water, and grain, a deplorable waste of food in a world where chronic hunger afflicts close to a billion people. Further, high intake of red meat and processed meats is linked to heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and premature death. Thus a nation-wide shift from a meat-based diet to a plant-based diet would bring manifold benefits. To forestall unemployment, under a federal program workers in the meat industry could be retrained to take up more benign types of livelihood.

Nevertheless, such a pivotal change in the American diet is unlikely to be realized anytime in the near future, and we must therefore focus on protecting the welfare of workers in their present occupation. This requires both ethical commitments and regulatory enforcement. A company must fulfill its moral responsibility to the well-being of its workforce, ensuring that its employees do not jeopardize their health and well-being at the workplace. A company that treats its workers as disposable, as mere instruments of production whose lives can be imperiled to serve the company’s interest, has transgressed against a basic principle of workplace ethics.

Yes, Regulation Is Necessary

In face of the moral recklessness of modern corporate capitalism, the need for regulatory protection is particularly acute. Almost invariably, companies will seek to cut corners whenever they can get away with it. It thus becomes the obligation of the government to step into the fray and come to the defense of the workers, which means that the government must enact laws that safeguard workers and impose regulations that prevent industries from operating in ways that endanger their workforce.

A government that does not protect workers from the ruthless demands of industry has forfeited its responsibility to the people it purportedly represents. Despite their professed good intentions, industries can’t be fully trusted to regulate themselves. Regulation is the job of the government, a job that must be rigorously pursued to protect the well-being of the workers. It is only in this way that we can move, gradually, toward becoming a nation that gives everyone the chance to flourish.

Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi is an American Buddhist monk and translator of Pali Buddhist texts. He is also the founding chair of Buddhist Global Relief


This essay was originally published on the website of OneEarthSangha.

 

The Coronavirus Forces Us to Fix the Flaws of our Food-Supply System

By Randy Rosenthal

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The coronavirus has exposed the flaws of our food-supply system in at least two ways. One is by compelling retail food staff–grocery workers and delivery “shoppers”–to put their health at risk. The other is the widespread destruction of fresh food.

Next to the fragility of the medical industry, the coronavirus has exposed the flaws of our food-supply system—especially the vulnerability of the people who make it possible. Grocery-store workers and delivery “shoppers” in particular have found themselves taking on the first-responder risks of doctors, nurses, and EMTs. Dozens have died of COVID-19, and thousands have gotten sick. Understandably, they’re afraid to go to work. But they have to, because in order for the rest of us to eat, someone must deliver food to grocery stores, and someone must stock the shelves.

Many grocery stores have automated checkouts, but most still have clerks. And so while many of us can work from home and observe physical distancing guidelines, grocery-store workers are forced to come in proximity with hundreds of people a day. Due to this sudden and dramatic uptick in risk, the lack of safety and security that grocery companies provide their workers has become starkly apparent.

Soon after governors announced stay-at-home orders in March, supermarket workers and “shoppers” began to protest the dangerous conditions they face and the lack of health support available to them. Most live paycheck to paycheck, and cannot afford to miss work, especially because most supermarkets do not provide paid sick leave. And now workers had to expose themselves to getting sick from the coronavirus, a risk that is exacerbated by the failure of supermarkets to provide basic protective personal equipment (PPE), such as masks, gloves, and sanitizer.

Whole Foods particularly has come into focus for its poor treatment of its workers. As one worker reported to Oxfam America, Whole Foods did not provide PPE and actually encouraged workers to buy their own. He also reported that even if a worker tests positive for COVID-19, the store does not close to get cleaned. Nor is the information shared with other employees with whom the infected worker may have come in contact. This creates a frightening, dangerous working environment that has many grocery workers freaked out.

Whole Foods “shoppers” who deliver for Amazon Prime, as well as Instacart “shoppers,” are also on the front lines, as they deliver groceries so that we don’t have to leave our homes to get them. In normal times, these “shoppers” provide a convenience for anyone too busy or too lazy to shop for themselves. Now they are risking their lives—and the lives of anyone they come in contact with—so that we don’t have to go to the market.

In the context of this pandemic, this service is what economics calls a “positive externality,” which is when someone’s private behavior leads to broader social benefits. Here, “shoppers” for Instacart and Amazon reduce the need for people to congregate, and are therefore lowering the systematic risk of COVID-19 for everyone, allowing society to flatten the curve of infection. The grocery-delivery business is booming, with Instacart saying they’ll immensely expand their workforce, by adding 300,000 shoppers. But “shoppers,” too, have complained that they’re not provided with basic protective gear that helps keep them safe, such as hand sanitizer and masks.

All this is why many organizations like Oxfam have launched campaigns demanding that grocery stores act to support their workers. First, workers are demanding paid sick leave. Recent legislation has made paid sick leave mandatory, but only for businesses with 500 or fewer employees, leaving companies like Amazon and Whole Foods off the hook. Governments are currently trying to address this loophole, and ensure that anyone working an essential business is provided with two weeks paid sick leave, if they either test positive for COVID-19 or have to quarantine. This is a decent start, but let’s take a step back and look at the bigger picture. Paid sick leave is an intrinsic aspect of any developed nation, and so perhaps the pandemic will force the US to catch up and leave this legislation in place.

Supermarket workers are also demanding hazard pay, which is an increase in their hourly wage to account for the increased risk. This makes sense economically. The demand for such workers has surged; their value should rise accordingly. Stores have responded with a temporary wage increase; they know that without their workers, they won’t have a business and continue making money hand-over-fist. And yet many workers still feel that the proposed $13-per-hour raise is not worth their life.

Another primary complaint is that customers are not taking care to protect the health of workers by observing physical distancing rules, and generally trying to ensure a sanitized working environment—just this week, a grocery store worker shamed my housemate for bringing a reusable bag. As a result, many grocery stores now have a limit on the number of customers allowed in a store at a given time, with signs specifying six feet of spacing.

Some stores have put up plexiglass barricades to protect the checkout clerks, and some have provided free gloves and masks. But not all have done so, and so there needs to be legislative action to enforce these safety precautions for workers across the country. Otherwise, it will be up to the managers of individual stores to make the call.

The coronavirus has forced law-makers and company owners to take a more active, broader role in safeguarding the health and economic security of workers, at least temporarily, but as the effects ripple out, the pandemic has exposed another fatal flaw of our food-delivery system: the factory-farm, market-based supply of food production.

On the one hand, the supply of meat is suddenly in peril, as large, consolidated meat-processing plants in the Midwest and South have been forced to shut due to a high number of coronavirus cases among their workers. And on the other hand, with restaurants, cafes, and schools closed down, demand for milk, eggs, vegetables, and grains across the board has plummeted. As a result, farmers have destroyed an immense percentage of their own products, as The New York Times recently reported. Tractors are crisscrossing bean and cabbage fields, destroying the crops. About 5% of the country’s milk supply is currently being dumped into lagoons and manure pits, an amount that can double as the shut-down continues. And as most people don’t make onion rings or French fries at home (I haven’t had fries for about a month!), millions of pounds of onions and potatoes are being buried in ditches, left to rot.

In normal times, many people in the world are going hungry, and millions struggle to buy food. But with the millions of people who have lost their jobs, global hunger will rise, and putting food on the table will be even more difficult. That’s why this widespread destruction of fresh food is particularly terrible.

Yes, farmers say they have donated surpluses to food banks, but without the usual delivery chains, they simply do not know what to do with their food. Their machines, they explain, are geared to package food for restaurants, in large containers, not the smaller packages for retail at grocery stories. And so, because of this food supply-chain flaw, they simply throw the food away.

Food waste is a normal part of our market-based system, but the pandemic has magnified how abominable of a waste it is. Just as the coronavirus has forced us to address the safety and economic security of grocery-store workers, it should also force us to rectify the unsustainable flaws of our market-based food-supply system as a whole. In other words, food and health are rights, not commodities.

As my colleague Keith Hartwig, an artist, designer, and researcher working in the fields of Science and Technology Studies, wrote on Instagram in response to this Times report, “We have to go deeper, to reveal what food waste and these dystopian images signify: a deeply flawed food system built on economic subsidies, models of monoculture and overproduction, unfair and unstable global trade polices and labor practices, decades of economic disparity and social injustice, unequal access to and distribution of food resources, failed urban planning, and much much more.”

At the end of his post, Hartwig asks, “Will we emerge from this and revert to the old normal, or will we emerge from this ready to create a new normal? A normal no longer rooted in greed, but a normal rooted in equity fairness, resilience, foresight, and sustainability.”

Before the pandemic, it would have been highly unlikely that we would be able to create this new normal of food justice. But now is a time not only of great challenge, but of opportunity for systemic change. And if we want to ensure the next pandemic doesn’t cause a similar catastrophe, we’d be wise to fix the exposed flaws of our food-supply system, from production to delivery, so that it prioritizes health and sustainability.

Randy Rosenthal teaches writing at Harvard. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and many other publications.

 

 

 

Listen up, Congress: We need swift COVID-19 measures that put people first

 By Mary Babic

Cross-posted from Oxfam America’s “Politics of Poverty” series

The swift and devastating spread of the coronavirus in the US is dealing a staggering blow to our public health systems and our economy. It is also exposing how working families have been struggling for decades. As Americans grasp the enormous and long-term impact, they support policies that will deliver to those most affected and pave the road to an equitable recovery.

 The groundswell is crystal clear: A new Oxfam-Data for Progress national poll, conducted days ago, indicates overwhelming support (greater than 70 percent) for measures that directly help working people, including: paid sick leave for all workers, emergency funding for food supplies for those affected by the crisis, free testing for the virus, and moratoriums on evictions, foreclosures, and utility shutoffs.

Even “very conservative” voters indicate majority support for emergency cash payments, waiving copays for coronavirus treatment, and increasing federal funding for Medicaid. On the flip side, support drops noticeably for policies that prop up large businesses.

Support extends across all divides

Stunningly, support for these measures cuts across ideological, racial, and age divides. Simply put, voters recognize that this is a moment of great peril. As the clock ticks and the numbers rise, the pandemic is quickly revealing how many working families were already struggling to stay afloat, living paycheck to paycheck.

Americans want to prevent them from falling into bankruptcy, homelessness, and hunger. Women indicate stronger support for actions to protect working people. This may reflect the fact that women face disproportionate hardships during crises. They are the primary caregivers of children, the ill or disabled, and the elderly, and being confined in the home increases care work and stress. In addition, women are currently on the front lines as nurses, doctors, personal aides, and cleaners. Finally, we know from long experience that domestic violence spikes in times like these.

Among the overall insights: 86 percent support free access to coronavirus testing, vaccination, and care for every American. Eighty-six percent support strengthening unemployment assistance (especially for workers who depend on tips, gig workers, domestic workers and independent contractors). Eighty-five percent support an immediate moratorium on evictions, foreclosures, and utility shut offs. Just 54 percent support low–interest government loans for oil and gas companies.

Americans are saying it loud and clear: We cannot sit back and watch as the pandemic devastates the most vulnerable and flattens our economy. It’s time for proactive and effective government action. While Congress recently passed legislation that mandated paid sick leave, it excludes 80 percent of workers. We must do better.

An effective policy agenda

If our response is left to the market, COVID-19’s impacts will cascade through our economy, further deepening poverty, gender, racial and wealth disparities.

It is not time for half-measures and incremental tweaks to an economic system already fragile and rigged in favor of the powerful. Instead, we need decisive, audacious actions to prevent long-lasting and grave economic consequences for everyone—especially for those pushed out of progress for decades.

As Congress feverishly negotiates its third economic rescue package, Oxfam has developed a full economic policy agenda. Here are some highlights:

Protect working people being hit the hardest 

Payroll tax cuts are a farce: ineffective, regressive and potentially bankrupting Social Security. Instead, Congress should deliver:

  • Cash payments to all individuals.
  • Recurring boosts to federal anti-poverty programs.
  • Paid sick and family leave to all.
  • Increased unemployment insurance benefits.
  • Fiscal relief to states, counties, and cities that will bear the brunt of this crisis.
  • Investments in emergency shelters for women facing domestic violence at home.

 No blank checks to big business, but lifeline support to smaller companies and workers

An economic triage rescue plan would prioritize support to small businesses on the edge, not the country’s most powerful multinational companies flush with cash.

  • This is not a time for bailouts, or corporate tax cuts, for big business.
  • This is not a time to re-write tax policy to the benefit of the wealthy (which endangers resources we will need in the long term).

Moreover, we agree that assistance to corporations should be conditioned on forbidding recipients from: reducing payrolls; violating existing collective bargaining agreements; demanding concessions from workers; outsourcing; increasing workloads; and, companies must agree to a $15 minimum wage once the crisis has passed.

Any sectoral assistance should be explicitly time-limited and subject to certain conditions, including and especially prohibiting share buybacks; freezing executive bonuses; requiring board approval for political lobbying expenditures; and country-by-country tax reporting.

No free lunch to certain sectors

Any assistance to corporations should not exacerbate existing inequalities, worsen public health outcomes, or impede the necessary global transition to a zero-carbon economy. In particular, sector-specific benefits for oil and gas producers, who’ve long-received subsidies and tax breaks, should not be considered at this time.

Affordable testing, treatment, and vaccination will be essential for economic recovery. Any assistance or incentives for the pharmaceutical sector must ensure that breakthroughs in treatment and vaccines become a global public good, accessible and affordable to everyone.

Mary Babic is the Senior Communications Officer for the US Regional Office at Oxfam America.