As workers sicken with Covid-19, US meat giants clock up record dividends
Who profits from the US meat processing sectors bumper pay-outs?
During April and May, as the Covid-19 pandemic gripped the US meatpacking industry, the four biggest US meat companies – Tyson, WH Group, JBS and Hormel – announced bumper pay-outs to their shareholders. These three corporations alone paid dividends that took their annual pay-outs to shareholders to over $1 billion (Table 1). They did so against a grim picture.
At the time of writing, almost 40,000 meatpacking workers – many at Tyson, Smithfield (WH Group) and JBS factories – have caught Covid-19. 184 workers have lost their lives. Tyson and JBS face a lawsuit claiming that their actions during the pandemic amounted to racial discrimination against their predominantly black, Latino and Asian workers – who experienced 87% of the Covid-19 cases in meat-processing plants. And a Senate investigation is scrutinising Tyson Foods, JBS, Cargill, & Smithfield Foods (WH Group) who “exported massive amounts of pork and other meats to China while threatening the American public with impending shortages”.
Less than a fortnight after taking out full-page adverts in the New York Times and Washington Post warning that ‘The food supply chain is breaking’, Tyson announced a quarterly dividend to take its annual pay-outs to shareholders of over $600 million. Days after closing the South Dakota factory that had become ‘America’s Biggest Outbreak’, Smithfield’s parent company, WH Group announced a record dividend for its shareholders – a payout that at HK$0.265 per share – totalled around $500 million.
And it is not only the public companies paying out record sums to their shareholders. The private meat and grain giant Cargill in July this year paid out $1.13 billion to its billionaire family owners. The secretive National Beef – often considered as one of the ‘Big 4’ US meatpackers – will also be paying dividends according to its biggest shareholder, the Brazilian beef giant Marfrig. National Beef and Marfrig, together with their public counterparts Tyson, WH Group, JBS and Hormel control two-thirds of US meat production.
Colossal shareholder payouts during the pandemic were rife among Big Ag. GRAIN a civil-society organisation that works to support small farmers and social movements in their struggles for community-controlled and biodiversity-based food systems has documented record payouts to Nestle, Bayer and others – companies using their powerful connections to advance ‘Agro-imperialism in the time of Covid-19’.
So who profited from these payouts? It’s not just Cargill’s family billionaires and investment giants like Blackrock. Around a third of these shares are held by pension funds, more still by insurance companies. So depending on your pension fund – if you are lucky enough to have one through your employer – it could be you and me too. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather retire into a world without industrial animal agriculture and one where worker’s lives aren’t put on the line in a global pandemic so we can continue to consume vast quantities of factory-farmed bacon. It’s time we stopped Butchering the Planet.
Table 1 – The dividends of the largest publicly-listed US meat companies
|WH Group (Smithfield)||$500 million|
Payments either final dividends or annualised for the 2020 fiscal year. All announced in April or May 2020. Either sourced from company announcements to shareholders or calculated as the number of shares * dividend per share = Total dividend.
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