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Food Integrity Campaign Blog

COVID-19: The New Hamlet Fire

FIC Staff | September 22, 2020

On September 3, 1991, a horrible tragedy rattled North Carolina’s business community. Around 8:30 that morning the Imperial Food Products chicken packing plant in Hamlet, North Carolina, burst into flames. When the fire broke out, many of the key exit doors were locked. In an effort to keep workers from stealing chickens, fire exit doors were double bolted from the outside. As a result of the Hamlet fire, 25 workers — the majority of whom were women and mothers — needlessly died, and 56 were injured trying to escape. Today, a viral “fire” is raging in North Carolina’s slaughter plants due to a global pandemic, giving rise again to senseless worker injury and death.

The conditions giving rise to the Hamlet fire and resulting deaths appalled North Carolinians. How could a poultry plant literally chain fire exit doors without someone reporting it? Heavy criticism fell on North Carolina’s Department of Labor, which was tasked with enforcing health and safety complaints from workers. In a rare moment of bipartisan unity, lawmakers made a bold attempt to ensure nothing like this would happen again in their state, passing the Retaliation Employment Discrimination Act (REDA) to guarantee protections for employees who blow the whistle on a variety of critical issues, including health and safety. Twenty-eight years after REDA was passed, North Carolina workers in poultry plants are sounding the alarm again that their state is failing to protect their right to tell the truth, but this time the fire that’s spreading is COVID-19.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, the town of Hamlet was deeply divided along racial lines, in the midst of an economic crisis, and boasting a “pro-business,” strong anti-union reputation. The Imperial Food Products factory opened in the late 1970s and made chicken tenders for fast food restaurants. The owners moved the factory to Hamlet from Pennsylvania — in part to take advantage of lower-wage labor — and employed mostly Black women. (To learn more about the historic impact of systemic racism in chicken processing, read our previous blog on the topic.)

Conditions at the packing house were treacherous, but workers felt they had no other choice but to remain silent. When interviewed for “Hamlet: Out of the Ashes” a documentary in 1992, former Imperial Foods packing room worker Mary Pouncey said, “They didn’t talk to you like you was human… They never had a [fire] drill, at least while I was working there. There was no sprinkler system. There was a lot you knew that wasn’t right, but if you complained about it you got fired.”

The owners of Imperial Food Products had been known to cut corners on a long list of OSHA and USDA standards. The Department of Labor failed to enforce the basic anti-retaliation measures in place in the state. At the time, long delays in responding to worker complaints were the norm, and North Carolina workers experienced retaliation for reporting health and safety violations without recourse. As a result of the department’s inaction, the workers at the Imperial Food Products factory remained silent for fear of losing their jobs, despite knowing what the factory was doing was wrong.

As news of violations at the factory spread, Republican and Democratic state legislators took action. In addition to passing REDA they increased funding for personnel at the Department of Labor to ensure that the laws would be enforced. The new REDA legislation greatly expanded anti-retaliation protections for North Carolina workers, extending protection to those filing complaints under OSHA, the Mine Safety and Health Act, the Wage and Hour Act, and many others. It also covered protection for employees that filed for workers’ compensation for injuries, and for those who participated in ongoing investigations into company practices.

But after REDA was passed and as the Hamlet fire faded from public memory, the political landscape started to shift again. Just one year after the fire, Republican Lieutenant Governor Jim Gardner claimed lawmakers had gone “overboard” with regulations. US Congressional Representative Cass Ballenger, who had spoken publicly about the tragic consequences of the neglect at the Hamlet factory, launched a crusade at the federal level to defund OSHA and end the “gestapo tactics” that he claimed were costing businesses too much money. By 1995, North Carolina lawmakers followed suit at the state level, cutting funding for state-level investigations and personnel.

The trend in steadily wearing down the effectiveness of REDA has continued in North Carolina up until today. By 1998, due to underfunding and lack of personnel, the Employment Discrimination Bureau (part of the Department of Labor that investigated REDA complaints) had a backlog of over 2,000 unresolved cases. In 2001, Republican Cherie Berry was elected as the first female Department of Labor Commissioner, after campaigning on the promise to make the department less intrusive in business, with the motto “the government that governs best governs least.” To date, after receiving more than 10,000 REDA complaints since taking office, the Department of Labor under Berry’s leadership has not brought a single retaliation case on behalf of a worker.

And unsurprisingly, the meat industry is also back in the spotlight. In early 2020 as COVID-19 outbreaks intensified across the country in slaughter and processing facilities, North Carolina saw several hot spots develop around its own chicken and hog plants. (Read our blog about the impact of Covid-19 on processing plant workers). Processing workers across the country have organized in attempts to demand safer conditions, access to PPE, and the right to sick leave. In North Carolina, as of July 15, 75 COVID-related REDA complaints had been submitted to the Department of Labor, but over half were promptly dismissed and none had warranted a site visit from the agency.

At FIC we know that when workers cannot speak up for themselves, they also cannot speak up for the rights of others — including consumers, the animals, or the environment. Enforcement of anti-retaliation measures not only enables a safe and dignified workplace, it also allows workers to blow the whistle if they witness food safety concerns, misuse of chemicals or other pollutants, or abuse of animals. Anti-retaliation measures are an essential function of a sustainable and just food system, and their systematic erosion in North Carolina today poses a broad threat.

In looking back at this history, it is evident that what began as an effective bi-partisan response to right an egregious wrong has devolved into complacent inaction — strikingly similar to the way things were back in 1991 before the Hamlet fire. Despite having well-written laws on the books today that can protect workers and whistleblowers who speak up from retaliation, the state and the Department of Labor have systemically failed to enforce these laws, leaving workers once again with little recourse when exposed to dangerous and appalling conditions. It is time for North Carolinians to take notice and defend their right to tell the truth at work: REDA must be revitalized and fully enforced.