BALTIMORE — After a CDC report revealed that foreign-born workers in the poultry and seafood industries on Maryland’s Eastern Shore are more vulnerable to COVID-19, a migrant rights organization is taking steps to combat the spread of infectious disease.
The Centro de los Derechos del Migrante (CDM), a binational migrant rights organization with locations in Baltimore and Mexico, recently launched their Protein Processing Worker Project: a five-year cooperative agreement with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control to prevent and control the spread of infectious diseases like COVID in populations of migrants and immigrants working in poultry and seafood processing facilities. Funded by a $1.7 million grant, the multifaceted project will provide new data to better inform future guidelines, workplace practices and vaccination strategies.
The project was announced on Workers’ Memorial Day on April 28 to honor workers killed or injured on the job. A coalition of different regional groups will collaborate to improve health conditions for essential workers during the pandemic.
In December 2020, the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report showed that foreign-born workers at processing facilities are at a higher risk of contracting COVID. The increased vulnerability is due to working on the production floor in close proximity to others, shared commutes and larger household sizes.
“They see their workplace on posters, they’re told to social distance, but practically, it’s impossible to do that and maintain the production standards that their companies and that sort of a consumer kind of demand in general requires of them,” said Julia Coburn, project director for CDM’s Protein Processing Project.
A December 2020 study published by the National Academy of Sciences estimated that livestock plants in the U.S. were associated with 6 to 8 percent of total COVID cases.
The very nature of the poultry processing facilities also created a perfect setting for COVID to take off, according to Amy Liebman, the director of environmental and occupational health at Migrant Clinicians Network. The cold temperatures, fast line speeds and poor ventilation found in many of these plants became even more of a hazard for workers standing close together on the production floors.
In seafood processing facilities, workers also feel pressured to work harder and faster, with pay sometimes depending on the amount of meat processed. Workers in the industry, many of whom are women, are also very dependent on their employers for their H-2B visas, housing, transportation, health care and more, according to Liebman.
CDM’s project will also help foreign-born workers better understand their rights within the workplace. Many workers with temporary visas or concerns on immigration status won’t speak up or try to take action to protect themselves due to fears about loss of employment and pay and the threat of retaliation by their employer or the authorities. Employees then don’t feel comfortable asking for COVID essentials such as personal protective equipment, quarantining when exposed or time off when sick.
However, if immigrants and migrant workers were taken out of the workforce, “the whole industry would come to a screeching stop,” Liebman said.
Communications barriers can also be a challenge for foreign-born workers on the Shore. Spanish and Haitian Creole are the first languages for most of the workers, but an increasing number speak indigenous languages from Mexico and Central America, which complicates efforts to reach out.
Workers impacted by this language barrier are often left behind, Coburn said. They’re very reliant on friends or family to give them vital information instead of wider media platforms, and they struggle to communicate with their coworkers and employers.
“This project is really looking to reach the folks that are not being reached,” she said.
The CDM aims to give foreign-born workers reliable, validated information from legitimate sources to battle the spread of misinformation about COVID. To increase the level of trust in the workers, the organization also plans to utilize channels and messengers that the community can trust, such as doctors, local radio programs, official social media accounts and direct outreach.
For those who speak indigenous languages and those with lower literacy rates, video and audio content addressing concerns and dispelling rumors are well received.
“We don’t want folks to feel ashamed or feel like they have to kind of withhold or shy away from engagement,” Coburn said, explaining how the organization encourages the workers to come forward with concerns.