In Brazil, workers’ rights are minced in the meat industry


The Brazilian multinational JBS is the biggest meat producing and processing company in the world. Created in the 1950s, in the centre of Brazil, it now operates in 150 countries. Behind this success however are regular attacks on workers’ rights and worker safety, condemned by the labour inspectorate and the country’s trade unions.

In January 2015 the Mato Grosso Labour Ministry took legal action against JBS for making its employees work longer hours than allowed by law, and in unhealthy conditions, in its slaughterhouses. Staff complained of poor hygiene linked to the presence of large quantities of blood and viscera that could spread disease.

There have already been poisonings from ammonia, a liquid coolant, on several sites. In 2015, for example, 66 people became ill in Santo Iniacio (Paraná) and recently, in September 2016, 70 people were poisoned near Goiânia (Goiás).

“They felt sick, some vomited, had migraines, and two people passed out” an emergency doctor told the Globo channel following the incident. The abattoir concerned had been repeatedly ordered by the labour inspectorate to comply with safety standards. The company responded to the criticism by denying it had any link with previously reported flaws.

These examples are only a small proportion of the cases that JBS has been implicated in, over the respect of the rights of its 45,000 employees. Although its competitors BRF (formerly Brazil Foods) or Marfrig are hardly exemplary in this field, it is JBS that is top of the list for the number of court cases.

Often, the courts impose fines on the employer, but the offences are repeated from one State to another. The slaughter industry is in the spotlight for its excessively high number of workplace accidents.

According to a survey by the research site Agencia Pública, which had access to Social Security figures, some 7,822 of the company’s employees stopped work due to occupational illnesses and unfitness for work between 2011 and 2014.

The trade unions report that the staff responsible for cleaning the machines, such as the mincers, lack training. An even more serious problem is that risks are taken to the detriment of safety to keep up the pace of production.

“The employee was asked to clean the machine while it was still moving, to not cause any delays in production” explained Wagner Rodriques, General Secretary of the Sindicato da Alimentação (Food workers union) in Carambeíto Repórter Brasil, following an accident in which a young man of 26 had his hand crushed.

Another of the offences observed by the labour inspectors and compiled by journalists from Repórter Brasil and Agencia Pública, is the carrying of excessive loads (50 tonnes per day, when the legal limit is 10 tonnes per person).

The legal limits on working time in “extreme environments” - places with extremely high or low temperatures - are not always respected, nor is the length of the working day. Cases of people working nearly 16 hours a day have been recorded. All such factors increase the risk of accidents, say the unions.

“High levels of risk”

According to journalist Carlos Juliano Barros, who investigated the company’s practices and made a documentary on the subject in 2011, “Factory bosses often lay the blame on the employees who have to take the risks”.

In 2010 the Labour Ministry sought to reduce accidents by introducing a programme to bring working conditions up to standard in the slaughterhouses.

The programmes national coordinator, Sandro Eduardo Sardá, is a prosecutor who regularly works on cases against JBS. “The enterprise has a deliberate police of undermining workers’ rights” he told Equal Times.

Yet the multinational, which is the country’s largest private company with an annual turnover of 120 billion reales in 2014 (US$37 billion) is not in difficulty. And it benefits from public funds via the national development bank, the BNDES.

“The pace of work is incompatible with protecting workers’ health” says the prosecutor.

Inspections of the slaughterhouses, conducted jointly with the occupational health service and the trade unions, have led to court orders to close down several sites of companies in the sector, including JBS. In other cases, agreements have been signed with them about respecting the measures to be put in place.

“BRF has changed its approach over the last two years, recognising that there are problems and signing agreements with us. JBS, on the other hand, remains in denial” says Sardá, who accuses the multinational of continuing to practice “social dumping”.

Yet JBS, whose name comes from that of its founder, José Bastista Sobrinho, has published an “Ethical Conduct Manual” on its website, in which the company states that “its most precious asset is human capital” (p.17).

Contacted by Equal Times, JBS stated that “improving the working environment” is a “constant concern” of the group.

The prosecutor however says that the pace of work is three times higher than the average on some slaughter lines. He also notes the lack of safety equipment, or equipment of poor quality because it is “the cheapest available”.

In a series of eye witness accounts recorded by Repórter Brasil, accident victims also complain that the enterprise has “washed its hands of them”.

In concluding the interview the prosecutor stresses that “It is important for people to know that the meat that is produced in Brazil and exported to Europe has been prepared at the cost of great human suffering.”


This story has been translated from French.