Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

John Oliver tries to spoil meat for us now by exposing unsafe meatpacking plants

John Oliver
John Oliver
Screenshot: Last Week Tonight

John Oliver just won’t let us have anything nice. In this time of shut-in, shut-down COVID isolation, we’ve all learned to take our tiny pleasures where we can find them. After all, who could we possibly be hurting by indulging our pandemic-starved brains and bodies with a little soothing indulgence now and again? Everyone. We’re hurting everyone with seemingly everything we do as we attempt to claw back some sort of enjoyment from this gnawing, panic-stricken, perilous pandemic and its attendant economic terror-dome. Even, as John Oliver noted in a typically sobering/rage-fueling/wryly funny examination of just how much worse this coronavirus nightmare is for employees of meatpacking plants across the country, just tucking into a damned sandwich.

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Ah, meat. We all love it. Except for the approximate 8 percent of the world’s population who choose not to eat other living creatures for environmental, religious, or plain niceness reasons, but those people have never tasted the McRib, so who’s the real monster here? Anyway, as Oliver showed in his scathing main story on Sunday’s Last Week Tonight, the horrifying, tortured, disease-spreading lives and deaths of factory farmed animals aren’t the only things to choke down along with your bacon. Workers in the nation’s monopolized, overcrowded, unsafe, and just plain gross meatpacking plants aren’t treated much better.

Sure, they’re not shot in the back of the head, Anton Chigurh-style at the end of each bloody, smelly, contagion-riddled, assembly line ordeal, but then again, at least the doomed animals are allowed to relieve themselves. Not so much at these plants, where—thanks to good old capitalist automation and lawmaking manipulation—strict quotas mean some workers resort to wearing diapers so as not to lose their jobs. (A local news “gotcha” segment catches one worker surreptitiously taking a whiz under his breakneck processing station before returning to work, Oliver noting that the anchor’s appalled “That’s disgusting!” might be better applied to the conditions that put the poor guy in that position to begin with.)

Then there are the puny fines for worker injury, dismemberment, and death, which, as Oliver, pointing to meat moguls JBS, amount to about .00003 percent of total profits. A slap on the wrist that, as Oliver puts it with characteristic disdain, motivates companies like JBS to give a similarly minuscule “fraction of a fuck about the safety fo their workers.” Then there’s the fact that meatpacking giants like their facilities located in rural, isolated areas or jurisdictions where state-level standards can be lowered with aggressive lobbying. (Or straight-up bribes, as Oliver shows in one egregious case from late Texas poultry king Bo Pilgrim, who was caught simply handing legislators blank ten-thousand-dollar checks to legislators.) And that such industries rely on job-insecure populations (immigrants, the formerly incarcerated, the impoverished) who are much less likely to risk their jobs by complaining.

And all that’s before COVID. Then you have cases like those Tyson Foods managers who were caught running an employee COVID death pool about just how many of their crowded-together workers would contract the disease. (They got fired after an exposé, so won’t be able to collect on the 1,500 sick and 8 dead at that one Iowa Tyson plant.) “But what about OSHA?,” any reasonable person invested int he myth that this sort of stuff doesn’t happen in America might cry. Well, as Oliver lays out, that federal worker safety agency is woefully understaffed, handcuffed by restrictive, company-legislated limits on what they can even inspect, and can issue fines so laughably tiny (even for work-related deaths) that, as Oliver says, “It’s cheaper for companies to run an unsafe plant and occasionally pay those fines, than for them to provide a safe work environment.”

As to what can be done, Oliver, as ever, is on the case, in that he delivered some hard truths requiring Americans to make choices that put other people’s well-being over their own comforts. Yeah, John Oliver is pretty good at exasperatedly sighing after bringing that up, too. Of course, people could forego their daily meat until companies stop treating their workers as disposably and wretchedly as its animals, but, as noted, we’re all just so tired, British man. Absent that, strengthening and rebuilding OSHA, eliminating companies’ power over worker’s comp settlements, and slowing down those ever-increasing assembly lines to safer speeds would be things to call your lawmakers about. You know, since, at airtime, some 58 thousand meatpackers have contracted COVID at work, while some 280 have died. As Oliver concluded after playing some Tyson foods “our workers are our family” propaganda, that family does “seem to be a pretty fucking dysfunctional one.” Um, go Packers?

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Danny Peary's Cult Movies books are mostly to blame.