Meat packers make 29% less than the average manufacturing wage, while laboring in one of the most dangerous forms of industry.
Most labor advocates would agree that low wages and poor working conditions couple to make meat processing among the worst forms of work in the United States. Driven by consumer demand and government policy, livestock producers are constantly exploring mechanisms for producing cheap, quality, meat. Even within the complex realm of food politics, the politics of meat processing stand out as particularly contentious and troublesome.
Before I explain why, I should touch on why I think that this is an important topic to have on a blog about farm labour. As many of us understand, recent history has transformed American agriculture into a large-scale, vertically-integrated system of production. Much of our food comes to us after passing through a complex network of fields and factories, all of which are controlled by a relatively small number of corporations and interest-groups. Agriculture, processing and distribution are all parts of the same system of food production, and the people at the top of that system are often the same.
Laborers in food processing often suffer from some of the same vulnerabilities and abuses as laborers in the fields. Slaughterhouses, processing facilities and meatpacking plants all rely on exploited labor, driven by a demand for cheap food, and sustained by lax governmental regulation. Labor abuses at every level of food production should demand our attention because they are sustained by some of the same interests.
As with field workers, food producers generally experiment with altering one of two variables in order to lower prices: the treatment of animals, or the treatment of workers. The treatment of workers in meat processing plants is thus notoriously poor. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has noted that workers in poultry processing “have consistently suffered injuries and illnesses at a rate more than twice the national average” over the past thirty years.
Condemnation of the industry is widespread among animal rights and labor activists, and one does not have to search for long to find evidence of poor working conditions and labor abuses.
Last year, for example, the U.S. Department of Labor was forced to sue Henry’s Turkey Service after finding that it was paying mentally retarded workers $65 per month to work in an Iowan processing plant.
In 1991, twenty-five workers were killed and 54 injured when a fire broke out at the Imperial Foods processing plant in North Carolina. The plant had no sprinklers, fire alarms, or working phones, and had not been inspected in eleven years. More troubling, the workers had all been locked inside when their boss had suspected them of stealing meat.
Examples like these should be evidence that – in many ways – workers in processing are subject to the same abuses as workers in the fields. Processing plants rely on cheap labor and avoid labor organization by hiring a financially vulnerable, and largely immigrant, workforce.
But there is always a silver lining, and this realization creates an opportunity for greater cooperation within organizing. I love the idea that labor organizing could be a more collaborative endeavor, with different groups working together and drawing from each others’ successes. As was highlighted here earlier this week, there are organizations such as The Food Chain Workers Alliance who work to combat labor abuses within the food system as a whole, contemplating how workers in different fields can cooperate in order to bring about meaningful reform.