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Smithfield: Cradle of Cruelty

On July 16, 1534, Anne Askew—given recent renown in Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning Wolf Hall—was burned at the stake. A great stage was built at Smithfield, just outside of London’s gates, to allow Chancellor Wriothesley, other members of the Privy Council, and assorted city dignitaries to watch the burning in comfort. Anne, broken by the rack and unable to stand, was chained to the stake in a sitting position.


The Archdeacon of Nottingham witnessed the execution and described an angelic Anne smiling throughout her torment. At the moment of her death, he insisted there was a “pleasant cracking from heaven.” Whether this was the sound of the flames, summer lightning or a figment of the Archbishop’s imagination couldn’t be discerned, nor could, given the gruesome manner of her death, the precise second when her heart ceased to beat.

Why was Anne murdered? She refused to recant her Protestant beliefs.

Smithfield, Va.—located on the banks of the believe-it-or-not Pagan River and not far from Jamestown—was colonized in 1634. Years earlier, John Smith—that John Smith—first explored the area. Smith himself was from Lincolnshire, 100 miles north of London. Though he’d have known of his nation’s Smithfield, I suspect he gave his name to the Virginia settlement; anyone who kills and beheads three Ottomans in separate duels has an ego. But the provenance of the city’s name isn’t known with certainty.

Founded in 1936 as the Smithfield Packing Company, in Smithfield, Va., Smithfield Foods is the largest pork producer in the world. In addition to owning over 500 U.S. farms, Smithfield contracts with an additional 2,000 independent farms to grow pigs.


Each day at the Smithfield plant in Sioux Falls, S.D., 3,700 workers process 19,500 slaughtered hogs. On the line, workers stand inches apart. The vast majority are immigrants—80 different languages swarm the factory’s air—doing work that native-born Americans won’t deign to do. Most hail from Nepal or Latin America (20 years ago, while trekking in the Himalaya, I watched in awe as 120-pound, bare-foot porters carried 90-pound loads secured by tump lines across their foreheads over rocky trails, the most extraordinary feat of physical and mental stamina I’ve ever seen) though the website of the Sioux Falls cultural center also has COVID info in Arabic, Bosnian, Amharic (a Semitic offshoot, and the official language of Ethiopia), Somali, French, Croatian, Kunama (between Eritrea and Ethiopia), Russian, and Swahili.

Ahmed first saw Neela on the Smithfield floor during one of their shifts. He liked her skin, she liked his laugh. He asked around about her and found she was from the same village in Ethiopia.


“Wow, I’m so excited,” Ahmed said. “In my breaktime, I keep searching where she work. Right away, I stop by her line. I say, ‘Hey, what’s up?’ I tell her she’s beautiful.”

He took her to a trendy restaurant. They took a week-long vacation in Wisconsin Dells. They fell in love and were married.


Neela, who no longer works on the line, is eight months pregnant. Recently, she started having trouble walking. Ahmed needs to help her; they can’t social distance. Two of his friends at the plant have tested COVID positive. Ahmed has started showing symptoms of the virus himself.


Rosa is a grad student who returned to Sioux Falls after her college closed. Though she doesn’t work at the plant, her parents, who don’t speak English, do. On March 25, Rosa sat down at her laptop, logged into a fake Facebook account, and typed a message to Argus911, the FB-tip line for the Argus Leader, the local newspaper. “Can you please look into Smithfield? They do have a positive (COVID) case and are planning to stay open.”


The paper confirmed her story and published it the next day. Smithfield responded that the employee in question was in a 14-day quarantine, and his work area and other common spaces had been “thoroughly sanitized.”


A week earlier, Smithfield CEO Kenneth Sullivan said, “Food is an essential part of all our lives, and our more than 40,000 U.S. team members, thousands of American family farmers and our many other supply chain partners are a crucial part of our nation’s response to COVID-19. We are taking the utmost precautions to ensure the health and well-being of our employees and consumers.”


Sullivan was lying. According to Taneeza Islam, an immigration attorney in Sioux Falls who has worked with Smithfield employees, “there was no social distancing occurring on the lines from at least before March 26 to when some measures like taking temperatures outside of the plant before employees had to come in took place on Monday, April 6. So for that period of time, we know that mitigation efforts were not taking place.”


Even the temperature checks could be circumvented by employees choosing to enter through a side door. On April 9, the day after the South Dakota State Health Department confirmed 80 cases at the plant, Smithfield announced the factory would close for deep cleaning over the three-day Easter weekend. Company-dispensed PPE consisted of beard nets, worthless against a virus whose diameter is less than a micron.


According to the BBC, the plant stayed open Easter weekend, running at close to two-thirds capacity. On April 11, Sioux Falls Mayor Paul Tenhaken and South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem, both Republicans, sent a joint letter to Smithfield calling for a 14-day “pause” in operations. The company said it would comply, but didn’t until April 15, when the virus had already infected 644 Smithfield employees or contacts. During the two-week closure, workers would be paid and also offered a “responsibility bonus” of $500 for returning to work after the pause.


Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue responded to Smithfield’s announcement by praising “the true commitment and patriotism our food supply chain workers have shown during this time and the work they continue to do day in and day out.”

Rosa’s parents were both scheduled to work April 14, the final day before the shutdown. But three days earlier, her mother started to cough. She insisted it was nothing, but Rosa convinced her to get a COVID test.


“If I were to have COVID,” said her mother through Rosa, “I clearly would have gotten it at the factory. This week I have worked on three different floors. I’ve eaten in two different cafeterias. I’ve been walking through the whole place.”


On April 14, Rosa’s parents woke at four a.m. per usual and called Smithfield to say they couldn’t work until they’d received her mother’s results. Later that afternoon, they got the call: positive.

It’s hard not to equate Smithfield’s offer of a $500 “responsibility bonus” with the value of an immigrant’s life. Few employees have talked to the media; whether Smithfield has prohibited them to or they’re scared isn’t clear; the BBC changed the names in the above narrative to prevent reprisals against the women and men.


Every immigrant, even a visa holder, could be considered a public charge, at risk for deportation, if she quits and files for unemployment, thanks to a 2019 rule by the Trump Administration preventing her from obtaining permanent citizenship. In addition, the recent Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act excludes anyone living in a family with an undocumented immigrant.


Smithfield employees have no choice. They need to work and risk exposure to the virus in order to put the pork they process on their kitchen tables. Meat processing workers have joined communities of color and nursing home residents in extreme vulnerability to COVID’s ravages.


It’s nothing new. Marginalized people always suffer the most.

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