Precarity Capitalism and the Global Value Chain in Beef: The Plight of Meatpacking Workers at JBS Greeley
Of the many jobs categorized as “essential” during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, the continued operation of American meatpacking plants stood out. This work was 1) unrelated to critical healthcare services, 2) primarily staffed by minority and immigrant workers, and 3) conducted in conditions that seemed ideal for the coronavirus’ spread. Why and how did meatpacking facilities then remain open through the spring and summer of 2020, despite the proliferation of facility-linked COVID-19 hotspots and worker deaths? Drawing from authors of legal theory on racial capitalism, self-regulatory behavior by transnational corporations, and “precarity capitalism,” this paper builds context for this phenomenon through a case study on JBS USA Beef in Greeley, Colorado, the flagship facility for the American branch of world-leading meat producer JBS S.A. based in Brazil. It frames the protracted battle over production and worker safety as a standoff between workers of minority racial status, in precarious economic and labor conditions, and a winning coalition of powerful political and corporate stakeholders invested in the global value chain in beef.