At five months pregnant, Ivone* was cutting poultry on a conveyor belt when she started feeling ill.
“I went to the locker room and took some painkillers. That’s when I started to have some strange loss of fluid,” she says. She was rushed to a hospital where she was diagnosed with an infection, and had to go on leave.
Ivone, who works for the world’s biggest meat company, JBS, in the southern Brazilian state of Santa Catarina, is in her third pregnancy and says she was losing weight because she was unable to eat properly while she was at work. For hygiene reasons, she was not allowed to eat on the meatpacking plant’s premises, not even in the locker room.
“If you count it, you have a 10-minute break – you won’t be able to take off all the clothes you have to wear and go outside to eat, and then come back. It’s impossible,” she says.
Between 2016 and 2019, more than 2,600 pregnant women working in meat plants were reported as suffering maternal disorders, including infections, bleeding and excessive vomiting, according to Brazil’s National Institute of Social Security (INSS).
The excess risk of maternal disorders for the pig and poultry sectors, where most women work, was at least twice as high compared with all other employment sectors in Brazil between 2000 and 2016, according to data collated by labour prosecutors, who are now arguing for safer working conditions.
There are about 220,000 women working in country’s meat sector.
Potential risks for pregnant women may include small leakages of ammonia (a gas used in the refrigeration system), inappropriate postures at work stations, exposure to low temperatures and viruses or bacteria present in animal meat, says Dr Roberto Ruiz, a health consultant at Contac, a federation of food workers’ unions.
Karina Calife, a professor at the Faculty of Medical Sciences of Santa Casa de São Paulo, says: “Pregnant women are more sensitive to almost everything.” As well as the discomfort caused by very low temperatures, the constant noise may worsen nausea and dizziness, she says. Spending a lot of time standing can also lead to thrombosis and embolisms.
Another issue is a risk of urinary infections, says Calife. Pregnant women feel the urge to urinate more often, as the expanding uterus puts pressure on the bladder. But a potential lack of toilets close to work stations and the required use of multiple protective clothing may discourage women from using them.
“One of the main causes of preterm birth and neonatal ICU care is urinary infections,” she adds.
Until a few weeks before her “scare”, Ivone and other pregnant women had been on leave from their jobs at the production lines of two JBS factories.
A court had granted an injunction to their union in late March, ordering that pregnant employees without full vaccination against Covid-19, or working in jobs subject to harmful agents, be put on leave.
JBS appealed against the decision and, due to a change in ministry of health protocols, the women returned to work in April. “But the part that says that pregnant women can’t work in a place with harmful, dangerous and painful agents was upheld,” says Samuel Remor, a lawyer for the union.
Remor says pregnant women should avoid activities that demand intensive repetitive movements, such as the poultry thigh cutting belt. That is where Ivone was when she felt sick. “It’s a cold place, with noise above the [recommended] limit,” he says. Calife agrees: “Ideally, these women should spend their pregnancy period in administrative environments.”
Historically, meat companies have argued their activities should not be classified as “unhealthy”. “They want to avoid extra costs [such as hazard pay],” says labour prosecutor Lincoln Cordeiro.
Cordeiro, who heads a group of prosecutors specialising in meatpacking plants, wants a reduction in the working week – currently 44 hours – to stem what he describes as “alarming rates of illness due to repetitive movements”.
This applies particularly to pregnant employees. “Shorter work days would drastically reduce exposure to any risk inherent in work, thus providing more safety to employees and unborn children, but also to employers,” he says.
JBS says it does not comment on ongoing lawsuits, “but reinforces that all pregnant employees who returned to work at the Forquilhinha and Nova Veneza units and who previously worked in environments with temperature variations, for example, were reassigned to other activities”.
The company also says it has invested more than £50m “in health and safety measures, systems and processes in all its facilities”.
The Brazilian Association of Animal Protein (ABPA), which represents the poultry and pig industries, disputes the possible correlation between maternal disorders and the environment in abattoirs.
Abiec, the Brazilian beef exporters association, declined to comment on the “internal procedures” of companies.
Brazil is producing increasing amounts of meat – exports were worth a record $17bn (£14bn) in 2020, with chicken exports alone worth $900m in May – but there are concerns about deforestation and working conditions.
* Names have been changed to protect identities
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