While thousands of North Carolinians employed in the poultry packing industry labor in miserable, unsafe conditions, State Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry continues to employ a passive, "hands off" approach when it comes to protecting them. That was the consensus view expressed by a panel of experts at an NC Policy Watch Crucial Conversation luncheon today in Raleigh.
The luncheon, which was entitled "Workplace safety: What will it take to convince state officials to act?" featured the co-authors of a groundbreaking series of reports that ran in the Charlotte Observer in February entitled "The Cruelest Cuts: The human cost of bringing poultry to your table." The two journalists, Kerry Hall and Ames Alexander, provided a sober and factual account of how their search for information on the risks of bird flu led them to uncover, almost by accident, the horrendous conditions under which thousands of workers must survive in poultry plants throughout the Carolinas. The reporters also explained how when they pushed Commissioner Berry about the issue and the lack of Labor Department scrutiny for the industry's spotless (self-reported) safety record, she responded with almost comically inept and illogical statements.
Two other speakers, Francisco Risso of the Western North Carolina Workers Center and Duke University epidemiologist, Dr. Hester Lipscomb, also offered compelling presentations about the real world impact of life in the poultry industry. Lipscomb reported on her research in a northeastern North Carolina community that is home to a Perdue chicken plant and the devastating impact that has been suffered by the mostly female and African-American workforce. Risso told similar stories from his time working with mostly Guatemalan poultry workers in Morganton and emphasized the critical importance of empowering the workers themselves to speak up for safer and healthier working conditions.
All speakers and several in the audience seemed to be in agreement about the need for improved state regulations — both with respect to workplace ergonomics and prevention of retaliation against workers who speak out or report their injuries.
Since it seems clear that Berry's main priority as Labor Commissioner remains getting her photograph in as many elevators as possible, let's hope today's event is the start of something good on the public policy front in the 2008 legislative session. If Berry won't act, maybe it's time to bypass her.
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