By Marcia Mueller
The fight for animals has been so slow and frustrating that it may be necessary to find other ways to proceed than just appealing to compassion and promoting veganism. Fighting Big Ag for its greed and dishonest policies could be one method. Now the time is right, with a political climate that is willing to discuss immigration, Wall Street/corporate greed, social justice, and inequality.
First of all, I’m for the animals and advocate for them. But for those who don’t care about animals, focusing on Big Ag’s business practices and their detrimental effects on people should attract a larger audience and gain more support. We should join forces to discredit and harm that industry. The first target is the workplace conditions in the meatpacking industry. For example, Conagra, Smithfield, and Tyson rely on many illegal immigrant workers, and their hiring practices and pay deserve scrutiny.
Current workers are ill-paid compared to previously unionized workers, and this may undermine the argument that it is a job that Americans will not do. The issue of illegal workers points to a number of issues, aside from the fairness to American job seekers.
High turnover means the companies are in constant search of replacements. Apparently this resulted in the illegal behavior that Tyson was accused of in a Federal District Court in Chattanooga. The government charged six Tyson employees with conspiracy to transport illegal immigrants across the Mexican border and help them get counterfeit papers for jobs at over a dozen Tyson plants. Those familiar with Big Ag believe that the companies actually recruit in Mexico and knowingly hire illegal workers. Some have charged that the companies have gone so far as to hire “coyotes” to assist in smuggling operations.1
This kind of company behavior is not confined to Tyson, according to Professor William Heffernan of the University of Missouri: ”This has been around for a long time in the meat-processing industry. And employers can take advantage of these people because they can threaten to send them back.” Heffernan also notes that ”it’s the race to the bottom; it’s just the race to the bottom. Companies started breaking the unions, moving the plants to rural areas and hiring immigrants a long time ago.”2
What about the government’s reaction to all of this? It has had little success in stopping the flow of illegal immigrants into Big Ag’s embrace: “Federal raids on meatpacking plants sent many illegal workers back to their countries. But it outraged food companies, who complained of disruptions . . . . Midwestern politicians sometimes complained that slowing down the work at meatpacking plants increased the supply of livestock and thereby harmed hog and cattle farmers, who had already been suffering from low prices for their goods.”3
The reason for the hiring procedures of Big Ag is obviously greed. According to an article by David Barboza in The New York Times, union workers 15 to 20 years ago earned approximately $18 an hour. Many of the current non-union workers, often from Mexico and Guatemala, start at $6 an hour. 4
Human Rights Watch documented company responses to workers’ union organizing efforts and deemed them “aggressive” and illegal. HRW noted that Smithfield, one of the largest pig-killing organizations in the world, threatened to close plants, stationed police at entrances to intimidate workers, and “orchestrated” an attack on union activists. 5
A Smithfield worker from El Salvador reported to HRW that “the company has armed police walking around the plant to intimidate us. . . . It’s especially frightening for those of us from Central America. Where we come from, the police shoot trade unionists.” Jamie Feller, director of HRW, stated that “meatpacking companies hire immigrant workers because they are often the only ones who will work under such terrible conditions . . . “and they exploit the illegal status of undocumented workers to keep them quiet.” 6
The work in the industry is also obviously brutal and deadly for the animals, but it is dangerous for the workers, as well.
Human Rights Watch notes that the quest for profits means a push for faster production and a rationalization of the labor process that would have made Frederick Winslow Taylor proud: “Faster, faster, get that product out the door!” is the industry byword. The results are cuts, amputations, skin disease, permanent arm and shoulder damage, and even death from the force of repeated hard cutting motions. When injured employees seek workers’ compensation claims for their juries, they are told, “You got hurt at home, not on the job.” 7
Some workers in the poultry industry recalled incidents in which other workers were fired or threatened for asking to slow the line (8 percent), and some (12 percent) said that supervisors actually sped up the line when workers asked to slow it down. 8
As for government regulatory agencies, such as OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) and the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture), they can be and often are co-opted, or captured, by the industries they are supposed to monitor. It has been noted that OSHA has failed to meet its standards in the meatpacking industry: “This could be a result of the lack of budget resources, inefficient management of the agency and its processes, political pressure from the industry at the expense of workers or a combination of these factors.”9
OSHA’s low level of civil penalties is demonstrated by its record in Alabama, where it conducted 20 inspections of poultry processing plants in the past five years, resulting in 78 citations. Most of the fines were less than $5000, but those fines are often waived or reduced during settlement. In 2001 OSHA issued ergonomic regulations to reduce repetitive stress injury, but Congress repealed the standards in 2002. 10
As for the USDA, its dismal failure to enforce the Animal Welfare Act is well documented. 11
But there are other issues, as well. Critics say the agency is too close to the industry it regulates. While that accusation is aimed at many federal agencies, some say USDA is especially vulnerable because it is charged with enforcing the law at facilities that also pay for its services. If the USDA discovers problems with food safety and actually closes the plant, people may lose their jobs. There is also the pressure of working closely within the facilities they monitor: “USDA inspectors work within food processing and slaughter facilities and live among their employees. . . . Disrupting the plant’s operations can be viewed as a personal affront, he said. “That person might get shunned in the lunchroom.” An added consideration is that supervisors fear action against facilities that have a large influence on local economies and could cost jobs.12
So Big-Ag exemplifies the worst kind of crony capitalism–an industry with huge profits engaged in dubious and potentially illegal activity with government regulatory agencies in its pocket. Note that Tom Vilsack, the head of the USDA, was once governor of Iowa, ran for president in 2006, and was appointed to the USDA in 2008. He has also been a partner at Dorsey & Whitney, a firm of lawyers and non-lawyer lobbyists. So he has been through the “revolving door” as is common in private sector/government collaborations.
If animal rights advocates were joined by social justice groups and other outraged members of the public and if Big Ag’s meatpacking facilities were seriously investigated and made to conform to laws and regulations, it could have a cataclysmic effect on the industry: “Because of this heavy reliance [on illegal immigrant labor] a major effort to crack down on the hiring of illegal workers could disrupt the nation’s food industry. This would really cripple the system. . . . In the communities where these plants are located there isn’t an alternative work force. They’d have to raise wages and improve the conditions.”13
So if they had to raise pay and improve conditions, it would affect profits of companies such as Conagra, Smithfield, and Tyson! (There is also a limit to how much they could respond by outsourcing, unlike some jobs)
If slaughter facilities also had to conform to OSHA regulations and USDA standards and those agencies had to actually enforce their rules, it would also cost more in terms of inspections, reporting, and changes to the work process itself. Slowing down the production line would help animals, as well as workers, and that would affect profits. If the industry had to pay more to operate, it would have to raise prices and that, in turn, could decrease demand. People who cared enough for animals or social justice would boycott.
So, why isn’t all this receiving attention? Why aren’t the working and hiring conditions at Conagra, Smithfield, Tyson and others being monitored? Why aren’t the failures of OSHA and the USDA reported more widely? Why are we accepting this kind of corruption from our institutions and businesses? Where are all the social justice advocates and pro-immigration supporters? Where are those who assert that ignoring inequality and injustice is “not who we are”? Are Conagra, Smithfield, and Tyson who we are?
Big-Ag in its meatpacking segment is getting by with murder (but that is its legal activity!). The industry is involved with practices that should not be allowed. Those who oppose a reform movement would have to explain their own hypocrisy and why they support worker exdploitation. If enough of the American people fight and win the battle against Big-Ag, the whole workplace would be forced to change. Big-Ag would pay a price, and that is just what we want!
• I am unaware of any other blog with the Armory’s mission of radicalizing the animal movement. I certainly hope I am not alone, and that there are similar sentiments being expressed by comrades unknown to me.
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