As we gradually emerge from this devastating global pandemic, there can be no doubt that protecting public health is an absolute priority. This not only means building better, more accessible and affordable public health care systems, but also dramatically improving occupational health and safety regulations to ensure safer workplaces for workers. This is precisely why the urgent call for recognition of ILO Convention No.155 on Occupational Safety and Health as a fundamental right has gained so much support in 2022.
For essential food industry workers working throughout the pandemic, the right to a safe workplace became absolutely vital. Meat and poultry industry workers in particular were understood to be at high risk of occupational exposure to COVID-19. Studies also showed that faster line speeds in poultry plants increased COVID-19 risk. Added to this is the fact that the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 that causes the disease COVID-19 is a zoonotic disease (a disease that spreads between animals and humans) and greater efforts are needed to prevent the emergence of new zoonotic diseases. As the UN Environment Program (UNEP) pointed out in 2020, we must take several comprehensive measures to protect the environment and transform our food systems to prevent the next pandemic. This is even more urgently needed in industries where the risks of exposure to animal diseases – including slaughterhouses in the meat and poultry industry – are high.
All this means that globally we are at a critical turning point in which public health, and health and safety at work, must be given priority. Yet it is at precisely this juncture that Brazil is heading in the wrong direction. The government is moving to amend and thereby erode the protection of workers’ health and safety in the meat and poultry industry. Specifically, Regulatory Norm 36 (NR36) Health and Safety at Work in Slaughter Houses and Processing Meat and Derivatives is under attack.
NR36 was adopted in 2013 after 15 years of campaigning to improve the working conditions of meat and poultry workers and ensure their right to a safe workplace. NR36 includes everything from the length and timing of rest breaks, standing and sitting while working, work rotation, limiting exposure to cold temperatures, and the use of appropriate and adequate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) that foremost protects workers’ health, not just the product. There are also provisions on biological hazards and biosecurity measures that are even more relevant today with the resurgence of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) – including outbreaks of H5N1 – and a surge in Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR).
The objective of NR36 is: “… to permanently guarantee safety, health and quality of life at work.” Few would doubt the importance of this objective in 2022. Yet the meat and poultry conglomerates in Brazil want the government to erode NR36, reversing this objective. This means not guaranteeing safety, health and quality of life at work, and setting lower standards at a time when we are striving to protect human health. It means taking away the right to safety and health on the eve of its global recognition as a fundamental right.
As with our urgent efforts to prevent a climate catastrophe, reverse biodiversity loss and stop new pandemics, we must follow the science. Science must drive our actions, not politics. Yet the attack on NR36 is precisely that – a political assault on health and safety in the meat and poultry industry that defies science. Since the introduction of NR36 in 2013, dozens of studies have shown the substantial improvement in human health and hygiene and the quality of life of meat and poultry workers.
Studies comparing work in poultry processing factories in Brazil before and after the introduction of NR36 demonstrate lower occupational risk and reduced incidence of long-term injury and illness. The importance of NR36 requirements for PPE, work rotation and rest breaks is cited again and again in international studies as examples of the qualitative improvement in human health.
Science tells us that NR36 is working. Politics tells us that the multi-billion dollar meat and poultry conglomerates can squeeze some more profit if workers stand longer, reach higher, have shorter breaks, use cheaper PPE, and suffer in cold temperatures.
The global consequences of the reversal of NR36 cannot be underestimated. Brazil is the world’s largest exporter of beef (23% of the total) and the second largest producer of chicken meat in the world. Chicken meat production grew to 14.35 million tons in 2021 and saw a 51% jump in exports. Meanwhile Brazil-based JBS is the world’s largest chicken producer and processor, the world’s largest protein supplier, and the second-largest global food company. So a reversal and erosion of health and safety standards in the meat and poultry industry is a global reversal.
Across the Asia-Pacific region and internationally we must protest to the government of Brazil and express our outrage. We must defend NR36 as a standard that exemplifies our fight to recognize ILO Convention No.155 as a fundamental right. We must at this critical historical juncture turn towards the protection of public health, workers’ health and the environment – not away from it. Yes we must also challenge and transform the the meat and poultry industry as a major contributor to climate change, biodiversity loss and as a key “disease driver”. But we can only do so through the organized strength of meat and poultry workers and their communities. We can move from safety to the environment and ensure a just transition. But such a transition is made impossible if the meat and poultry industry is cast backwards into a past of brutal, unsafe working conditions. There is no hope in that. No justice. And therefore no possibility of a just transition.
Hidayat Greenfield, IUF Asia/Pacific Regional Secretary
 Diogo Reis, Antonio Moro, Elaine Ramos, Pedro Reis, “Upper Limbs Exposure to Biomechanical Overload: Occupational Risk Assessment in a Poultry Slaughterhouse”, in Ravindra S. Goonetilleke and Waldemar Karwowski (eds) Advances in Physical Ergonomics & Human Factors: Proceedings of the AHFE 2018 International Conference on Physical Ergonomics & Human Factors, July 21-25, 2018, pp.275-282. See also Dias NF, Tirloni AS, Cunha Dos Reis D, Moro ARP. “The effect of different work-rest schedules on ergonomic risk in poultry slaughterhouse workers”. Work. 2021;69(1), pp.215-223.
 See the papers published in Nancy L. Black, W. Patrick Neuman, Ian Noy (eds), Proceedings of the 21st Congress of the International Ergonomics Association (IEA 2021), Volume V: Methods & Approaches. Springer, 2022.