Human Rights Abuses in United States Meat Packing Industry
“The great corporation which employed you lied to you, and lied to the whole country—from top to bottom it was nothing but one gigantic lie.”
―Upton Sinclair (1906)
In 1906 Upton Sinclair released the book The Jungle that provided a scathing look into the meat packing industry in America. This book shocked Americans, to see the conditions under which these workers lived, and the quality of the meat they were getting. Since this book was released you would think that the conditions people worked under would have changed. A new report by the Human Rights Watch entitled Blood, Sweat, and Fear Workers’ Rights in U.S. Meat and Poultry Plants reveals that these conditions still exist within United States meat packing industry. Further, this industry is among the top polluters contributing to global climate change. Global climate change, if trends continue, could change life, as we know it on earth. Thus, the meat packing industry should be viewed as one of the biggest threats to human rights and human life. Something we can do as ordinary citizens to combat this is simply to reduce or stop our meat consumption. This would help to levy the effects this industry has on the environment. The subsequent decline in profits for these companies would show disapproval of the human rights abuses they subject their employees to.
Lance Compa a labor rights researcher with Human Rights Watch examined several different meatpacking companies in several different areas. “Field research for the report examined beef packing in Nebraska, hog slaughtering in North Carolina, and poultry processing in Arkansas. The report looks closely at companies such as Tyson Foods Inc., Smithfield Foods Inc., and Nebraska Beef Ltd”(HRW.org, 2005). Through his investigation Compa found issue with three different areas of the meat packing industry. First, Workplace health and safety and workers compensation, second, Freedom of association, and last, protection of rights of immigrant workers. Here I got on to further examine each of the categories and some of the human rights abuses found in each.
Workplace Health and Saftey and Workers Compensation
Workers in this industry are often subject to terrible working conditions. “…Increasing volume and speed of production coupled with close quarters, poor training and insufficient safeguards have made meat and poultry work so hazardous. On each work shift, workers make up to 30,000 hard-cutting motions with sharp knives, causing massive repetitive motion injuries and frequent lacerations”(HRW.org,2005). First, it seems that the conditions which the workers are subjected to can easily cause bodily harm. The tools they use are often sharp and can cause serious injury with even one little misstep. When subjected to working long hours and being pushed to work at a faster pace, these workers can easily make a mistake and seriously injure themselves. Second, these workers are not properly trained for the jobs they have. This causes mistakes to be made more frequently as well as they are not properly trained on how to do their job in the safest manner possible. One employee is quoted as saying “There was no training. They told us, ‘Do what the person next to you is doing’” (HRW.org, 2005). All of this seems to be a way for companies to cut cost. Less time training their employees, less time they have to pay those employees for. They also don’t have to pay anyone to train those employees as well.
In the unfortunate case that an employee does get hurt, the companies make no effort to cover cost of medical treatment for that injury, and sometimes even just tell their employees to go back to work. The report quotes “ Many workers suffer severe, life-threatening and sometimes life-ending injuries that are predictable and preventable. Many workers cannot get the compensation for workplace injuries to which they are entitled” (Blood, Sweat, and Fear, 2005). This is a huge human rights abuse and actually is illegal. It should be unjust for companies to not cover the harms that they cause to their employees. One employee on this subject is quoted as saying “They love you if you’re healthy and work like a dog, but if you get hurt you are trash. … They will look for a way to get rid of you before they report it. They will find a reason to fire you, or put you on a worse job … or change your shift so you quit. So a lot of people don’t report their injuries. They just work with the pain” (HRW.org,2005). These workers are put in life threatening positions and if god-forbid something happens to them, there is not guarantee they will actually be able to get their injury properly reported and claimed through their insurance.
Freedom of Association
These workers are also usually barred from forming workers unions to fight the abuses that they have to live with in this industry. “When workers try to defend themselves by forming unions, employers use fear and intimidation to stop them” (HRW.org, 2005). You would think that since it is legal to form a union the United States government would step in to help these workers receive the justice they deserve. Shockingly, the United States law does very little to cover this gross injustice as the law actually does not cover this issue. Human Rights Watch gives an example of one company who went to extreme lengths to prevent a Union from being formed by their employees. “In a 1997 union election, Smithfield’s management fired union supporters, threatened plant closure, stationed police at plant gates to intimidate workers, and orchestrated an assault on union activists. On December 16, the National Labor Relations Board ordered a new election, which Smithfield immediately appealed”(HRW.org, 2005). The company in reaction to the Union formation made its own company police force that is known for arresting anyone in the company that is a union supporter. One worker is quoted as saying ““My supervisor said if we sign a union card the company will find out and fire us.” (HRW.org, 2005). These companies are actively barring their employees right to associate, given to them in the constitution, and should be held accountable for this human rights abuse.
Protection of the Rights of Immigrant Workers
Immigrant workers are often subject to horrible conditions in the companies and factories they work for. The meatpacking industry is no different. They often threaten their immigrant employees with deportation if they protest about the conditions to which they are subjected or try to unionize with their co-workers. One worker is quoted as saying “They have us under threat all the time. They know most of us are undocumented—probably two-thirds. All they care about is getting bodies into the plant. My supervisor said they say they’ll call the INS if we make trouble” (HRW.org, 2005). This is a gross human rights abuse of a vulnerable population and more should be done to protect the rights of immigrants in our country.
A recent study found “The highest total of livestock-related greenhouse-gas emissions comes from the developing world, which accounts for 75% of the global emissions from cattle and other ruminants and 56% of the global emissions from poultry and pigs” (Science.time.com, 2013). The impact of this industry on our environment could be catastrophic. If these carbon emissions continue at this rate the earth as we know it will drastically change. I argue that this should be treated as a human rights abuse because if the earth is damaged to extensively we will no longer be able to live on the planet and subsequently human life will begin to die off and be drastically affected.
What Can We Do?
One thing that the average American can do is cut down or eliminate meat consumption. This will help to reduce the amount of animals bread and used solely for meat production. This will also show industry that there needs to be a big change in the way they function before people will continue to consume their products. This would benefit both the workers lives and the effects this industry has on the environment. The government should also step up and make legal changes that will protect these workers in these factories. They should also make laws that can stem the carbon emissions that come from this industry. There is a lot that can be done to stop the human rights injustices that are happening through the meat packing industry. The government and citizens need to take immediate action that can help solve this issue. As Upton Sinclair wrote: “Now and then a visitor wept, to be sure; but this slaughtering machine ran on, visitors or no visitors. It was like some horrible crime committed in a dungeon, all unseen and unheeded, buried out of sight and of memory.” (The Jungle, 1906). Let us not be bystanders to this atrocity that sits literally right under our nose as we eat every meal. Let us take up action and make change to better the lives of those in these conditions and those of the future.