Editor’s Desk: Tragedy at a troubled pork plant

Gloria Thondok sits on her son Chiewelthap’s bed. For 40 days after he was killed, she slept on the floor of his room. Photo by Mary Anne Andrei.

By Brent Cunningham

Some of the most important stories FERN produces involve the shameful treatment of the men, women and (too often) children who plant, tend, harvest, process, prep and serve the food Americans eat every day. 
Last week we published an investigation, in partnership with The New Republic, about a Sudanese refugee who was shot and killed earlier this year by a police officer while working at the Seaboard Foods pork processing plant in Guymon, Oklahoma. 
Reporter Ted Genoways situates the tragic story of 26-year-old Chiewelthap Mariar against a history of serious labor violations at Seaboard, one of the largest meatpackers in the country, including its failure to follow OSHA’s Covid protocols. 
“Longtime employees say Seaboard has always been a hard, even brutal place to work, but they also tend to agree that conditions have worsened in recent years,” Genoways writes. “Trump-era deregulation allowed the company to speed up the pace of work without increasing the number of employees, and then the Covid-19 pandemic stretched stressed-out workers to their limits.”
FERN has covered the meatpacking industry’s disregard for the safety of its workforce extensively in recent years. The pandemic forced the nation to pay attention to a story that has unfolded far from the media spotlight, in tiny rural towns that have been transformed by waves of immigrant and refugee workers who come to work in the packing plants. Genoways’ disturbing and complicated narrative of the events at Seaboard on January 9 is a reminder that, while the pandemic may be over, this labor story is not. 
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