Children of Meatpacking Workers Become Activists

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July 2nd, 2020

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Ngu-Y Ngo is a lawyer in New York City. But she grew up in Lincoln, Nebraska, and moved there with her family from Vietnam as a kid.

Her dad got a job at the Smithfield plant in the nearby Crete…these days, it’s the biggest employer in town.

She says she remembers the sound of his alarm clock going off.

“Sometimes I was having, like a bout of insomnia that evening, or that night, and I didn’t fall asleep, but then my dad’s alarm would be going off, you know, and I would see him get out,” Ngo, said.

He still wakes up before dawn for work. And over his twenty-seven year-long career, she says he’s kind of become an institution. He mentors young employees new to the job and is close with his managers…close enough to bring back trinkets when he attended his daughters’ graduations.

“Every time we go on vacation, which we never do, he’ll always want to buy something for his manager,” Ngo, said.

But even as a massive COVID-19 outbreak has gripped the plant, with hundreds of reported cases, she says her dad doesn’t talk about it much. That’s not new behavior.

“They’ve just put their heads down, and that’s helped them survive,” Ngo, said.

Many children of meatpacking workers say their parents are still scared of getting COVID-19 but also worry about getting fired for speaking out. Several companies like Smithfield have issued statements highlighting their pandemic policies, claiming they meet or exceed guidance.

But advocates have alleged many plants still aren’t socially distancing workers and don’t have enough PPE. Plus, some companies like Tyson still don’t offer fully paid sick leave, despite recommendations from OSHA.

Those concerns recently brought Maira Mendez, an organizer with the advocate group Children of Smithfield, to the steps of Nebraska’s Capitol Building.

“I stand as a proud daughter of two meatpacking plant workers who immigrated to this country over 30 years ago, with a single purpose to provide the best for our family,” Mendez, said.

She told a crowd of dozens that plants are a critical presence in many of Nebraska’s immigrant communities, employing thousands.

“These meatpacking plants have made it possible for our parents to put us through college. But we won’t allow employers and government officials to classify plant workers as essential workers without treating them as essential lives,” Mendez, said.

⅔ of those workers are immigrants, and many of them are Latino.

The state doesn’t specifically report these numbers, but advocates say immigrants working at plants, particularly Latino immigrants, have been disproportionately hit by outbreaks.

Statewide, Latinos make up almost half of Nebraska’s COVID cases.

“This is a deeply immigrant community that is uplifting local economies and putting food on the table,” Tony Vargas, said.

Vargas, who represents a lot of plant workers from South Omaha in the Nebraska Legislature. He says the state should have done more outreach.

“It took weeks for us to get Spanish language education material in certain places, let alone at the state level,” Vargas, said.

Vargas’ parents moved to New York City from Peru in the 70s and worked on factory lines. His dad eventually became a machinist…an essential job, just like the workers at Smithfield.

He worked until the day he got sick with COVID-19 and died a few weeks later at 72.

“He relished the American dream. If it wasn’t for the American dream, I think he would have lost will, and that’s what kept him going,” Vargas, said.

Now, Vargas says his grief feels bigger than him: it’s a call to protect meatpacking families–that aren’t that different from his–from the trauma of COVID-19.

“It’s painful for me. I can’t imagine what it’s like for the family members and for the sons or daughters of workers,” Vargas, said.

Nebraska doesn’t release information about individual businesses, but at least 3,500 workers have gotten sick with 14 deaths.

The Children of Smithfield and other organizers say they’ll keep speaking out until working conditions improve for their parents.

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