Workers process pork at the Triumph Foods plant in St. Joseph, Missouri, in April 2017. A USDA photographer snapped this picture during a tour of the plant by then Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue. (USDA, Public Domain, Preston Keres)

A new aid program for meatpacking workers and farmworkers to provide $600 in grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture can benefit families, but it does not address underlying problems for workers, said an organizer for poultry workers in Northwest Arkansas. 

Magaly Licolli, executive director of Venceremos, said in an interview with the Daily Yonder that she believes the USDA can do much more than just provide the small grants to help meatpacking workers, particularly immigrants and refugees. 

“They could do way more for regulating the line speeds of the plants,” she said, referring to the maximum allowable rate of meat processing that USDA allows. “This is a fight we’ve been having with the Department of Agriculture about how important it is to regulate the line speeds.”

She said she believes that many deaths that have occurred during the pandemic – when line speeds were at times increased – could have been prevented. 

In many cases during the pandemic, workers were forced to work, at first without proper personal protective equipment and then without social distancing measures and then with increased line speeds, she said. 

“How many of the workers died? I’ve seen workers crying. I’ve seen workers suffering. And this $600 cannot make it, you know?” said Licolli, who hails from Mexico and moved to Arkansas in 2004. She started organizing several years ago and co-founded Venceremos ( “We will win ” in Spanish) in Northwest Arkansas in 2019.

The new Farm and Food Workers Relief (FFWR) grant program aims to help farmworkers and meatpacking workers with pandemic-related health and safety costs, according to the USDA.

“They deserve recognition for their resilience and financial support for their efforts to meet personal and family needs while continuing to provide essential services,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in a press statement. “This grant program is another component of this Administration’s efforts to ensure assistance to alleviate the effects of the pandemic is distributed to those who need it most.”

At Venceremos, the idea is to adopt the worker-driven social responsibility model, Licolli said. “Working conditions should change with the participation of workers,” she added. “Now, with the pandemic, it’s been challenging because we are a very small organization.” 

The group is mainly divided by plants, she said, because they couldn’t meet in person. And if they are from different plants, they are dealing with different issues.

“Covid exposed a lot of the issues that workers had been dealing with even before the pandemic, such as the line speed,” Licolli said. “During the pandemic, these companies were allowed to increase the line speed…and [workers have] been forced to work faster and produce more.” 

A year ago, the issue was having enough protective equipment and then it was social distancing and then the focus was on outbreaks and companies not notifying workers of infections or quarantining workers. 

“Also the companies were hiding the number of cases, and so nobody knew how many workers were sick at the plants,” she added. “And now workers at the plant have to keep up with the production because the production has never decreased so they have to work faster, to do jobs they are not trained to do and the wages are very low. It’s a constant fight.”

Workers who are organizing need to be believed, Licolli said. 

“For me, also, it’s been a journey of lifting their voices,” she said. “That people believe their stories. It’s racism. It’s classism. It’s that corporate America doesn’t want to listen to the people really upholding the economy in this country.”

Another issue is that of sustainability, she said. It’s easy for companies to talk about sustainability, but if they aren’t incorporating workers in the discussions, they are missing the point. 

“America loves chicken and meat and we are consumers, too. And what is the role of pushing these companies to do what is right for workers?”

Companies are treating workers as disposable if injured, she said. 

“A lot of workers are unable to find jobs because of an accident that happened at a poultry plant and it’s not sustainable,” she said. “It’s not sustainable to have these companies exploiting these workers to the point that they can’t find other jobs.”