The way meatpacking companies treat their workers has come under considerable scrutiny. If you’re a vegetarian or vegan, you may be wondering why you should be concerned about the treatment of workers. You might be thinking, “Just don’t eat meat” or “Why should I feel sorry for workers who treat animals so poorly.” At FIC, we think that there are system-wide problems affecting the health and sustainability of our food system and that the problems are very much interconnected.
Here are five reasons why vegans and vegetarians should care about what’s happening to workers at meat processing facilities.
It’s easy to think that workers are responsible for cruelty, but have you ever thought of workers as strategic allies to create safer outcomes for animals and people? Workers can see what’s really happening inside slaughterhouses—the stuff that’s hidden from the public’s view— and use their voice to spark change. USDA whistleblowers have brought instances of these violations to public attention. Workers have also spoken up about the faster pace of chicken slaughter resulting in more animal suffering. Courageous slaughter plant whistleblowers have put their own livelihoods on the line to protect animals. For speaking out against abuse, some have even been transferred many miles from their homes and have been forced to work at different facilities. But, in the end, their efforts have led to reforms at the USDA and have helped advance the public dialogue about this important issue.
Caring for workers benefits our public health and can slow the community spread of viruses and future pandemics. Meat plants have dangerous working conditions, and the Covid-19 pandemic alerted more of the public to those conditions. These plants with thousands of workers, working side by side, moving at a fast pace are the perfect environment for viruses to transmit. Plant workers described feeling unsafe and unprotected in their workplace from the spread of coronavirus. At least 269 meatpacking worker COVID deaths were confirmed between March 2020 and February 1, 2021, further illustrating workers’ health and safety concerns. Meat processing plants were repeatedly identified by local public health agencies as hotspots. Unfortunately, instead of caring for workers, the largest meatpacking corporations even helped draft an Executive Order to keep the plants open during the pandemic!
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimates 48 million people get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die from foodborne diseases each year in the United States. You don’t have to be the person eating tainted food to contract a foodborne disease. One example of that is the 1993 Jack-in-the-Box E. coli outbreak that killed 4 children. Two of the children did not get sick from eating the hamburgers, they got sick by coming in contact with someone who had. There is also an inextricable link between workers’ rights and food safety. An in-house study done by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) showed that plants with non-union workers witnessed increased food safety problems (i.e. recalls, etc.) than plants with workers who were unionized. In other words, food safety was better when employees had improved working conditions. Remember, empowered workers have blown the whistle on foodborne pathogens and that makes the U.S. food supply safer for everyone!
The dependence of corporations on cheap and vulnerable labor contributes directly to the harm of vulnerable communities and the success and profitability of the meat industry. White women represented most of the processing workforce until around 1960, and black workers were prohibited from occupying such positions due to segregation. But as the white workforce began to organize to demand better conditions in some areas, companies shifted their policies on segregation and took advantage of the fact that they could ask Black workers to do the same job for lower pay. The industry quickly desegregated, and Black workers became a predominant workforce for meat processing. As farmers of color were systematically dispossessed of their land, they lost the opportunity to generate wealth in agriculture, and instead they were pushed into low-wage jobs – which in the meat industry meant processing plants. The effort to pit workers against each other along racial lines was used by companies willing to do anything to prevent unionization.
As the industry continued to grow and concentrate into the hands of fewer and fewer companies, union busting, and brutal working conditions only intensified. Plant managers and company executives began making excuses for high turnover rates, blaming “lazy workers” and claiming they had no choice but to recruit labor elsewhere. Processing plants began recruiting workers from Central America and Mexico and recruiting immigrants. By recruiting an increasingly desperate and migratory workforce, facility owners avoided accountability for abysmal working conditions. Line workers denied restroom breaks are forced to wear diapers. Repetitive motions in production result in chronic workplace injuries. These injuries burden workers by causing disabilities that lead to losing years of one’s healthy life or experiencing a premature death. Workers risk termination, or in some cases deportation, if they speak up for themselves or food safety. We can do better!
In the news recently, three of the largest U.S. poultry processors—Cargill, Sanderson Farms and Wayne Farms—are paying $84.8 million to settle litigation accusing them of conspiring to drive down the wages of their workers. The allegations include that the chicken companies shared wage and benefit information amongst each other in order to drive down competition. When wage suppression occurs it harms a generation of workers who do dangerous work at a demanding job. When workers’ wages are suppressed, that keeps the prices of meat cheap and ultimately results in more animals being killed for food.