Life in The Jungle (The Lives and Times of the Slaughterhouse Worker Pt. 1)

All right so I’m gettin’ a little crazy and mixing things up again! Actually, I’m currently sick with a cold and I’ve been glued to this curse’ed computer screen researching the working conditions of a slaughterhouse/meatpacking plant and drinking massive amounts of tea. What a pleasant way to spend a day, don’t you think? Anyway, I’m dealing with wanting to use multiple ways of framing my arguments and I realized that if this blog is going to be taken seriously at all I better start citing my sources. However, if you think I’ll be dusting off the old MLA Handbook you are tragically misunderstanding my condition.I definitely get specific when I cite articles out of the New York Times website and Mother Jones but as far as different .org(s) I’m pleased to offer direct links to their respective websites for further reading. Also let me note that my grammar might not be entirely correct in this blog as a whole. I implore you, give me a break on this one. I appreciate it.

What if we took the issue of animal suffering completely out of the argument? Let’s put the focus on the impact CAFO’s (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation) have on human beings entirely. We’ll start with the people most directly involved in CAFO’s. The slaughterhouse workers. “According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, meatpacking is the nation’s most dangerous occupation.” The Human Rights Watch (http://www.hrw.org/en/reports/2005/01/25/executive-summary-blood-sweat-and-fear) reports the exploitative nature of the industry as well as the serious health risks involved. In case you don’t have time to read the article or don’t have Adobe Reader here is a paragraph on the first page of their report (Jan. 2005)

“Meatpacking work has extraordinarily and unnecessarily high rates of injury, musculoskeletal disorders (repetitive stress injuries), and even death. Whatever the inherent dangers of meatpacking work, they are aggravated by ever-increasing line speeds, inadequate training, close-quarters cutting, and long hours with few breaks.”

Even more disturbing is the “dry” way the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) lists off the dangers experienced by workers. i.e.

“Worker killed when hog-splitting saw is activated”

“Worker dies when he is pulled into a conveyer and crushed”

“Worker loses legs when a worker activates the grinder in which he is standing”

“Worker loses hand when he reaches under a boning table to hose meat from chain”

(Also interesting: In as early as 1908 the “conveyor system” was introduced to the disassembly lines, allowing supervisors rather than workers to control line speeds. Predictably; injuries ensued.) (Foer)

These horrifying instances paired with the inability for many workers to receive compensation for such injuries should be concerning for anyone who spends his or her money on products they are confident do not come from sweatshops. That statement will make more sense soon. read on! read on! Also, “workers also hesitate to report injuries for fear they will be dismissed on other pretexts.” I can speculate that other pretexts may include but are not limited to the attempt to organize unions or speak out against their treatment as employees by their supervisors. For those particularly interested in the right to unionize (I can already guess Ms. Zepernick will be reading the article in it’s entirely because she’s passionate about such issues), I advise reading up on federal and state level labor laws and agencies that protect(?) worker’s organizing rights. I think you’ll be shocked about how little legal enforcement takes place for these violations considering the manipulative power these enormous companies possess. And America pays them billions of dollars a year with every hamburger they purchase. For further reading on how the U.S. is failing to protect the rights of workers check out the International Labor Organization (ILO)’s 1998 Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work. I know, not exactly reading for pleasure or for many and much less anyone not in school.

Statistics are extremely helpful in gaining insight on the “big picture” however almost nothing beats an account of an individual’s experience. An article by Eric Schlosser (author of Fast Food Nation) in the publication Mother Jones (July/August 2001 Issue) titled “The Chain Never Stops” (refering to the repeated statement given by many factory workers about how literally the chain NEVER stops even if someone has been injured) gives a hugely informative narration to the story of a slaughterhouse worker, Kenny Dobbins (among other workers), who started working at the Monfort Beef Company (and ConAgra its parent company) in 1979.  Schlosser reports, “in 1999, more than one-quarter of America’s nearly 150,000 meatpacking workers suffered a job-related injury or illness…. If you accept the official figures, about 40,000 meatpacking workers are injured on the job every year.” However, those are just the reported and recorded numbers. It is likely to be much more considering the hesitation workers experience to report such injuries and illnesses for fear of being fired. “The meatpacking industry has a well-documented history of discouraging injury reports, falsifying injury data, and putting injured workers back on the job quickly to minimize the reporting of lost workdays.” Dobbins was 24 years old, 6 foot 5 and “had no fear of the hard work in a slaughterhouse.” In the next ten years here are a list of his injuries: 90-pound box of meat striking him and pinning him against the steel lip of a conveyor belt, blowing out a disk resulting in back surgery, inhalation of too much chlorine cleaning blood tanks and spent a month in the hospital for his burnt lungs and blistered body, a 10,000-lb hammer-mill dropped too quickly pulling his arm backwards resulting in rotator cuff injury, broke his leg stepping in hole in the concrete floor, shattered ankle and “more bruises and cuts, muscle pulls and strains than he could remember.” in 1995 Dobbins suffered a heart attack which the company nurse told him was a “muscle pull.” While he waited for compensation money, he was fired. Today, Dobbins “is disabled, with a bad heart and scarred lungs. He lives entirely off Social Security Payments. He has no pension or health insurance.” 

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has government documented reports with headlines such as, “Employee Severely Burned After Fuel From His Saw Is Ignited,” “Employee Hospitalized for Neck Laceration From Flying Blade,” “Employee’s Finger Amputated in Sausage Extruder,” “Employee’s Eye Injured When Struck by Hanging Hook,” One Employee Killed, Eight Injured by Ammonia Spill,” “Employee Decapitated by Chain of Hide Pulled Machine,” “Employee Killed When Head Crushed by Conveyor,” “Employee Caught and Killed by Gut-Cooker Machine.” The list went on but CAN YOU BELIEVE THIS?! (This goes without saying but imagine what the animals must go through!)

http://www.osha.gov/ (search: meatpacking for a myriad references)

Who in their right mind would choose to work in a slaughterhouse?! Think about so many who are forced into the dirty jobs in the U.S. because of lack of other options. Immigrants. That may be a sweeping statement but who has little if any representation and are at a very high risk of rights violations? “Lack of familiarity with U.S. law and language difficulties often prevent them from being aware of their rights as well as specific hazards in their work. Immigrant workers who are undocumented, as many are, risk deportation if they seek to organize and to improve conditions.” Schlosser reports in the same Mother Jones article, “in some American slaughterhouses, more than three-quarters of the workers are non native English speakers; many can’t read any language, and many are illegal immigrants. A new migrant industrial workforce now circulates through the meatpacking towns of the High Plains.” He continues, “They’re also unlikely to complain or challenge authority, to file lawsuits, organize unions, fight for their legal rights. They tend to be poor, vulnerable, and fearful. From the industry’s point of view, they are idea workers: cheap, largely interchangeable, and disposable.” Are you understanding why I’m saying how meatpacking plants and sweatshops are comparable work environments? These workers are simply cogs in the machine. Human capital.

(These immigration issues are also addressed in the documentary directed by Robert Kenner (www.foodincmovie.com) with plenty of credible sources. I highly recommend this film because it addresses the origins of our food such as corn and soybeans, not just meat.)

This should particularly interest those of us who are Texas residents: Meatpackers have the most freedom to do as they please here. “About one-quarter of the cattle slaughtered every year in the United States–roughly 9 million animals–are processed in Texas meatpacking plants.” The interesting and not so surprising part, remember this article was written in 2001, U.S. senator ,Phil Gramm, “is the industry’s most powerful ally in Congress. His wife, Wendy Lee, sits on the board of IBP.” (Iowa Beef Processors aka Tyson Fresh Meats) This is just one example of how politicians often double as board members and have complete control of the industry. “Between 1987 and 1996, Phil Gramm, a Republican from Texas, received more money from the meatpacking industry than any other U.S. senator.” (www.all-creatures.org/articles/ar-abehemoth.html)

Also in Texas, (and this makes me bury my head in my hands) meatpacking firms do not have to participate in the workers’ comp system. “The Texas Workers Compensation Reform Act of 1989 allowed private companies to drop out of the state’s workers’ comp system. Although the law gave injured workers the right to sue employers that had left the system, that provision was later rendered moot. When a worker is injured at a IBP plant in Texas, for example, he or she is immediately  presented with a waiver. It reads: “I have been injured at work and want to apply for the payments offered by IBP to me under its Workplace Injury Settlement Program. To qualify, I must accept the rules of the Program.” Schlosser continues, “Signing the waiver means forever surrendering your right–and the right of your family and heirs–to sue IBP on any grounds.” Unbelievably, in February 1998 the Texas Supreme Court ” ruled companies operating outside the state’s workers’ comp system can fire workers simply because they’re injured.” I strongly suggest reading this article if you are particularly interested in Texas workers’ rights especially when you get to the juicy parts about their “medical treatment” and how you’re completely fucked if you begin to receive it. Okay, I must reduce my rage to that of an ember for now.

Completely by chance I came across this fantastic study on the conditions of workers within the meatpacking industry in Nebraska titled “The Speed Kills You.” They surveyed 455 workers across Nebraska to find out what they most want everyone to know about the industry and how they are treated. It’s particularly enlightening because it goes into the historical background of the emergence of the slaughterhouse in Nebraska. (Cattle meat is their largest export, generating more than 1.1 billion) From the 1950s-1970s the wages “of the average meatpacking worker were higher than those of the average manufacturing worker.” According to the Government Accountability Office, (meatpacking) workers earned an average salary of $21,320 per year in 2003 compared to the average manufacturing worker at $33,500. I’ll dig deeper into this article in a later post but one of the most shocking instances it reports is the prevalence of workers urinating their pants because they are not allowed bathroom breaks much of the time. “What safety is there in the product?”

For more information of worker safety concerns:

Change to Win is a 5.5-million member partnership of unions founded in 2005 to represent workers in the industries and occupations of the 21st century economy. Change to Win is committed to restoring the American Dream for a new generation of workers – wages that can support a family, affordable health care, a secure retirement, and the opportunity for the future.”

http://www.changetowin.org/for-the-media/press-releases-and-statements/labor-department-inaction-on-safety-equipment-responsible-for-50-deaths-400000-injuries.html

The Change to Win website is incredibly informative but I simply cannot go into it all here. I mean, I could, but it might seem superfluous or repetitive or maybe I’ll come across as ranting. That particular link takes you straight to the safety equipment workers are made to purchase that really do nothing to protect against serious injury.

I need to throw in this important explanation before continuing with Pt. 2: I may seem like I’m completely victimizing these workers, however, there are countless accounts (interviews, undercover films etc.) that workers do unimaginably horrible things to these animals besides and additionally to systematically killing them. I would even call many of these heinous actions sadistic. This is not to say, these arguable “lapses in sanity” or just flat out disgustingly cruel undertakings are not the result of psychological, physiological or physical stress and exhaustion, nevertheless, they occur. All. The. Time. Obviously it’s clear that so many of these workers are just “doing their job” no matter how they may feel about slaughtering animals and they do it mechanically and as best they can to earn an income. However, ordinary people can become “sadistic from the dehumanizing work of constant slaughter.” (Temple Grandin)

I’m kind of wrestling with the decision to explain some examples of these cruel instances because honestly, I don’t like to think about them. It takes me to a dark place and my stomach threatens to heave. On the other hand, a lot of people just don’t know the extent of the situation and how prevalent these instances are. A side-note, for all the PETA-naysayers, no other group has gone as far and risked as much to acquire these accounts. Especially on video. No other groups strikes as much fear into the hearts of meat industry factory owners than PETA. It’s as simple as that. While many of their other efforts for awareness appear vaudeville at best, you can’t deny the bravery of these individuals who sneak into these slaughterhouse hellholes for the noble mission of exposing these atrocities. Imagine getting caught by a bunch of men in rubber aprons all sporting giant razor sharp knives. I reckon most of us would soil our pants immediately. Not to mention the legal-hell these activists must now try to climb out from under. Anyway, I had to say it.

………………………….

The way slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants are operated and the way it’s employees are mistreated is so obviously wrong to me and should not be supported and funded. If you can find a credible defense by all means, let me know. As Foer says, “We can’t plead ignorance, only indifference.”

The good news is more and more journalists, anthropologists, sociologists etc. are doing these incredible exposé’s on the experience of the slaughterhouse worker in major publications read by the masses. It is absolutely heartbreaking to read all the accounts of injured workers and how their lives have been forever changed and how fighting for compensation is ineffective and in vain so much of the time. It’s a crooked industry and to reiterate, workers are only cogs in the machine to them. However, their voices are not falling on deaf ears and workers are fighting back with unionization. I was happy to read more on the labor movement in a Smithfield factory on www.socialistalternative.org (now don’t go crazy and let the word “socialist” be a dirty word) and learn that, “Despite fierce management opposition, including forcing a worker to scrawl “VOTE NO” on the union on one of the hogs (The News and Observer, 12/11/08), and a fierce retaliatory raid against the workforce in which management colluded with Immigration and Customs Enforcement resulting in the arrest of 21 workers, the Smithfield workers continued to push for their right to a union. On Thursday, December 11, this fight resulted in a victory, as Smithfield workers voted 2,041 to 1,879 to join the United Food and Commercial Workers.” (2008 by Andy Moxley) There is opportunity for workers to overcome exploitation through unionization.

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