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Food and Labor
Labor Concerns in the Industrial Food System
• Immigration: Precarious legal status and lack of protections, esp.
for unauthorized workers.
• Low wages, esp. in agriculture and service work.
• Dangerous conditions: exposure to chemicals, dangerous
machinery, cramped factory and migrant living conditions, all
with little federal oversight.
• Irregular work schedules, resulting in irregular income.
• Lack of benefits like health insurance and life insurance.
• Abuse, including sexual harassment and sexual assault, esp. for
agricultural workers (often by supervisors) and service employees
(often by customers).
Food, Labor, and Immigration
• FoodPrint.org reports, “Today, immigrants produce the majority of our food,
from farm to processing plant to restaurants and grocery stores. Wages are
low, conditions are often harsh or dangerous, and immigrants not legally
allowed to work in the U.S. are often afraid to report abuses for fear of
deportation.” https://foodprint.org/issues/labor-workers-in-the-food-system/
• Officially, federal labor policies apply to all workers, regardless of
immigration status; however, undocumented workers may fear retaliation or
deportation if they demand fair pay or report abuses.
• In truth, federal law enforcement more commonly punishes undocumented
workers (e.g. with deportation) rather than hold accountable employers who
profit from the lower wages paid for unauthorized labor.
Agricultural Workers
• Agricultural workers are the people who plant and pick the
nation’s fruits and vegetables. (This does not include
people who own the land they farm.)
• As of 2014:
• “80 percent of U.S. farmworkers were Hispanic,” including “68
percent born in Mexico and 27 percent born in the U.S.”
• Immigrant farmworkers had been in the U.S. an average of 18
years, and more than half were authorized for employment.
• “84 percent were settled workers and 16 percent were migrants,”
meaning they moved seasonally to where the produce was ready
for picking (“following the harvest”).
Source: https://foodprint.org/issues/labor-workers-in-the-food-system/
Agricultural Workers (cont’d)
• Farm work is difficult and hazardous, exposing pickers to chemical inputs
(e.g. pesticides and herbicides) that may cause cancer or respiratory
problems. It can also cause physical exhaustion, heat exhaustion, or long-
term disability.
• Agricultural workers are typically paid at “piece rate,” or by the number of
bags or buckets they pick. This often ends up being less than min. wage.
By federal law, agricultural workers are not eligible for overtime pay, which
is typically a rate of time-and-a-half for hours worked beyond 40 in a week.
When there is no work to do (e.g. the crop is not ready or is destroyed by
bad weather or drought), workers do not get paid.
• The median annual income of a U.S. farmworker in 2013 was $17,000. For
comparison, the federal poverty line that year for a family of three (e.g. a
parent with two children) was $19,530. https://aspe.hhs.gov/2013-poverty-
guidelines
A joint agreement between the governments of the U.S. and
Mexico, the Bracero Program was launched to address U.S. labor
shortages during WWII. It brought 4.5 million temporary
workers to the U.S. from Mexico to do farm work. Unorganized
and therefore easily exploitable, braceros often worked and lived
in deplorable conditions, earning about $2 per day. U.S. labor
unions complained that the program drove down wages for
native-born Americans. The bracero program ended in 1964,
leading to a spike in undocumented immigration. U.S. agriculture
still relies heavily on immigrant farmworkers, but it now affords
few of them legal status or protection.
History of Farmworkers:
The Bracero Program
(1942-1964)
As depicted in the film Food Chains, farmworker organizations
like the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW, which is not
technically a labor union) have organized efforts to demand
better working conditions and a higher piece rate—asking for one
penny more per pound of produce picked. They won with the
establishment of the consumer-driven Fair Food Program in
2010, which requires partnering corporations to pay a few cents
more per pound of tomatoes, most of which goes directly to the
pickers. As it continues to expand into new states and segments
of the agricultural economy, the Fair Food Program also works to
improve labor conditions, targeting wage theft, abuse, and sexual
harassment and sexual violence. Partnering companies (some of
which are noted below) are certified by the Fair Food label.
Images:
https://www.fairfoodprogram.or
g/about-the-fair-food-program/
Fair Food Program
Image source: https://modernfarmer.com/2016/01/fair-food/
Image source:
https://ciw-online.org/about/
Slaughterhouse Workers
• Historically, most slaughterhouse (aka meatpacking) workers
have been immigrants or African Americans from poor
communities.
• Many immigrant slaughterhouse workers today are
undocumented, making them easier for large companies to
exploit.
• The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)
does not provide much oversight or supervision, and injuries
are often underreported due to fear of lost hours (and therefore
lost pay), as well as retaliation by managers. Workers are often
not compensated for their injuries (see Schlosser, “The Chain Never Stops,” 2001).
Source: Food Empowerment Project, https://foodispower.org/human-labor-slavery/slaughterhouse-
workers/#:~:text=The%20workers%20suffer%20chronic%20pains,is%20physically%20and%20mentally%20exhausting
Upton Sinclair, The Jungle (1906)
Muckraking journalist and socialist Upton Sinclair
chronicled the exploitative working conditions of
immigrants in a Chicago meatpacking plant in his 1906
novel The Jungle. According to the Chicago Tribune, at
the turn of the twentieth century,“[t]he meatpacking
industry seemed to embody everything that was wrong
with American society, operating largely in secret,
wielding unchecked power, threatening the health of
workers and consumers. As Sinclair later argued, …the
beef trust was ‘the incarnation of blind and insensate
greed . . . the Great Butcher . . . the spirit of capitalism
made flesh.’”
“I Aimed for the Public’s Heart…and I Hit It In the Stomach,”
Chicago Tribune (21 May 2006).
Image source:
http://www.capitalcentury.com/1906.html
In one well-known passage, Sinclair described the goings-on of a meatpacking plant: “[T]he meat
would be shoveled into carts, and the man who did the shoveling would not trouble to lift out a rat even
when he saw one—there were things that went into the sausage in comparison with which a poisoned rat
was a tidbit. There was no place for the men to wash their hands before they ate their dinner, and so they
made a practice of washing them in the water that was to be ladled into the sausage. There were the
butt-ends of smoked meat, and the scraps of corned beef, and all the odds and ends of the waste of the
plants, that would be dumped into old barrels in the cellar and left there. Under the system of rigid
economy which the packers enforced, there were some jobs that it only paid to do once in a long time,
and among these was the cleaning out of the waste barrels. Every spring they did it; and in the barrels
would be dirt and rust and old nails and stale water—and cartload after cartload of it would be taken up
and dumped into the hoppers with fresh meat, and sent out to the public’s breakfast.” (Chapter 14)
Boiling vats used to prepare
hogs for hair removal, circa
1890. Assembly line
techniques, or “disassembly”
line techniques, were used
very effectively in Chicago's
Union stockyards,
says Slaughterhouse author
Dominic Pacyga.
Courtesy of Dominic A.
Pacyga/University of
Chicago Pres
Sinclair’s exposé sparked public disgust and outrage about the unsanitary conditions of
meatpacking, which resulted in passage of the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and
Drug Act of 1906, and, ultimately, the establishment of the Food and Drug Administration
(FDA). A century later, the Chicago Tribune reflected on these new laws: “The results were
far from perfect, but a new template had been created, one that declared the public interest to
be more important than the demands of private interests. Sinclair was disappointed, however,
by the impact of The Jungle. It had been written to help meatpacking workers, not to improve
the quality of meat. ‘I aimed for the public’s heart,’ Sinclair later wrote, ‘and by accident hit it
in the stomach.’”
Compare Sinclair’s description to the conditions of slaughterhouses in the 21st century. Would
he be surprised by the state of meat production and processing more than one hundred years
after his findings? To what extent is “the jungle” an apt metaphor for the conditions of a
slaughterhouse? Why might Americans (or the federal government) be less easily upset or
moved to action by descriptions, images, and even videos of industrial meat production today
than a century ago?
Slaughterhouse Workers (cont’d)
• Physical dangers, all made worse by the high speed of the “disassembly
line”:
• Chronic aches and pains in hands, wrists, elbows, shoulders, back, etc. due to repeated
motions (“repetitive stress”).
• Close physical proximity to other workers:
• Increased risk of lacerations (much work is still done by hand with a knife).
• Increased exposure to illness (e.g. COVID-19, which killed at least 250 workers in 2020 in 41 major
outbreaks in slaughterhouses owned by three companies across 20 states).
• Exposure to biological agents of livestock (e.g. vomit, feces, viruses), including some that are
antibiotic resistant.
• Fast-moving heavy carcasses hanging overhead can cause physical injury, dismemberment, or
death.
• Long shifts, including mandatory overtime, can lead to physical and mental exhaustion,
making the work even more dangerous.
• Psychological toll of killing live animals (see Pachirat).
• Many slaughterhouse do not offer paid sick leave, even well into the pandemic.
• High turnover rate (by some estimates at 100 percent annually) means
many workers are not very experienced.
Sources: Food Empowerment Project, https://foodispower.org/human-labor-slavery/slaughterhouse-
workers/#:~:text=The%20workers%20suffer%20chronic%20pains,is%20physically%20and%20mentally%20exhausting; NPR,
https://www.npr.org/sections/coronavirus-live-updates/2021/02/01/962877199/meatpacking-companies-osha-face-investigation-over-coronavirus-in-plants
A scandal at a Tyson plant, reported in
December, highlights the routine
dehumanization of slaughterhouse
workers (typically poor people of
color, including many foreign-born),
by managers (typically working class,
white, and native-born). During the
early months of the pandemic,
President Trump deployed the Defense
Production Act to keep slaughterhouse
open while also shielding corporations
from legal liability for workers who got
sick with COVID-19 due to dangerous
working conditions.
The Argument of “120 + 1”
After working undercover in a slaughterhouse, Pachirat described the process by
which consumers distance themselves from the act of killing the animals they eat,
instead shifting moral blame to workers, many of whom are members of
subordinate racial groups and have limited other opportunities for employment:
“Months after I stopped working on the kill floor, I argued with a friend over who
was more morally responsible for the killing of the animals: those who ate the
meat or the 121 workers who did the killing. She maintained, passionately and
with conviction, that the people who did the killing were more responsible
because they were the ones performing the physical actions that took the animals’
lives. Those who ate the meat, she claimed, were only indirectly responsible. I
took the opposite position, holding that those who benefited at a distance,
delegating this terrible work to others while disclaiming responsibility for it, bore
more moral responsibility, particularly in contexts like the slaughterhouse, where
those with the fewest opportunities in society performed the dirty work. My
friend’s position was the ‘120+1’ argument, an argument replicated across myriad
realms where morally dirty work is performed by a select few, out of the sight of
the many who implicitly or explicitly authorize it but manage to evade
responsibility for it by virtue of their citizenship, the taxes they pay, their race,
their sex, or the actions of their ancestors” (pg. 555).
--Timothy Pachirat, “Slaughterhouse Workers” (2013)
The ”knocker” at work.
Image credit: Jungyeon Roh
Image source: www.nzdl.org

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Food and Labor

  • 2. Labor Concerns in the Industrial Food System • Immigration: Precarious legal status and lack of protections, esp. for unauthorized workers. • Low wages, esp. in agriculture and service work. • Dangerous conditions: exposure to chemicals, dangerous machinery, cramped factory and migrant living conditions, all with little federal oversight. • Irregular work schedules, resulting in irregular income. • Lack of benefits like health insurance and life insurance. • Abuse, including sexual harassment and sexual assault, esp. for agricultural workers (often by supervisors) and service employees (often by customers).
  • 3. Food, Labor, and Immigration • FoodPrint.org reports, “Today, immigrants produce the majority of our food, from farm to processing plant to restaurants and grocery stores. Wages are low, conditions are often harsh or dangerous, and immigrants not legally allowed to work in the U.S. are often afraid to report abuses for fear of deportation.” https://foodprint.org/issues/labor-workers-in-the-food-system/ • Officially, federal labor policies apply to all workers, regardless of immigration status; however, undocumented workers may fear retaliation or deportation if they demand fair pay or report abuses. • In truth, federal law enforcement more commonly punishes undocumented workers (e.g. with deportation) rather than hold accountable employers who profit from the lower wages paid for unauthorized labor.
  • 4. Agricultural Workers • Agricultural workers are the people who plant and pick the nation’s fruits and vegetables. (This does not include people who own the land they farm.) • As of 2014: • “80 percent of U.S. farmworkers were Hispanic,” including “68 percent born in Mexico and 27 percent born in the U.S.” • Immigrant farmworkers had been in the U.S. an average of 18 years, and more than half were authorized for employment. • “84 percent were settled workers and 16 percent were migrants,” meaning they moved seasonally to where the produce was ready for picking (“following the harvest”). Source: https://foodprint.org/issues/labor-workers-in-the-food-system/
  • 5. Agricultural Workers (cont’d) • Farm work is difficult and hazardous, exposing pickers to chemical inputs (e.g. pesticides and herbicides) that may cause cancer or respiratory problems. It can also cause physical exhaustion, heat exhaustion, or long- term disability. • Agricultural workers are typically paid at “piece rate,” or by the number of bags or buckets they pick. This often ends up being less than min. wage. By federal law, agricultural workers are not eligible for overtime pay, which is typically a rate of time-and-a-half for hours worked beyond 40 in a week. When there is no work to do (e.g. the crop is not ready or is destroyed by bad weather or drought), workers do not get paid. • The median annual income of a U.S. farmworker in 2013 was $17,000. For comparison, the federal poverty line that year for a family of three (e.g. a parent with two children) was $19,530. https://aspe.hhs.gov/2013-poverty- guidelines
  • 6. A joint agreement between the governments of the U.S. and Mexico, the Bracero Program was launched to address U.S. labor shortages during WWII. It brought 4.5 million temporary workers to the U.S. from Mexico to do farm work. Unorganized and therefore easily exploitable, braceros often worked and lived in deplorable conditions, earning about $2 per day. U.S. labor unions complained that the program drove down wages for native-born Americans. The bracero program ended in 1964, leading to a spike in undocumented immigration. U.S. agriculture still relies heavily on immigrant farmworkers, but it now affords few of them legal status or protection. History of Farmworkers: The Bracero Program (1942-1964)
  • 7.
  • 8.
  • 9. As depicted in the film Food Chains, farmworker organizations like the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW, which is not technically a labor union) have organized efforts to demand better working conditions and a higher piece rate—asking for one penny more per pound of produce picked. They won with the establishment of the consumer-driven Fair Food Program in 2010, which requires partnering corporations to pay a few cents more per pound of tomatoes, most of which goes directly to the pickers. As it continues to expand into new states and segments of the agricultural economy, the Fair Food Program also works to improve labor conditions, targeting wage theft, abuse, and sexual harassment and sexual violence. Partnering companies (some of which are noted below) are certified by the Fair Food label. Images: https://www.fairfoodprogram.or g/about-the-fair-food-program/ Fair Food Program
  • 12. Slaughterhouse Workers • Historically, most slaughterhouse (aka meatpacking) workers have been immigrants or African Americans from poor communities. • Many immigrant slaughterhouse workers today are undocumented, making them easier for large companies to exploit. • The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) does not provide much oversight or supervision, and injuries are often underreported due to fear of lost hours (and therefore lost pay), as well as retaliation by managers. Workers are often not compensated for their injuries (see Schlosser, “The Chain Never Stops,” 2001). Source: Food Empowerment Project, https://foodispower.org/human-labor-slavery/slaughterhouse- workers/#:~:text=The%20workers%20suffer%20chronic%20pains,is%20physically%20and%20mentally%20exhausting
  • 13. Upton Sinclair, The Jungle (1906) Muckraking journalist and socialist Upton Sinclair chronicled the exploitative working conditions of immigrants in a Chicago meatpacking plant in his 1906 novel The Jungle. According to the Chicago Tribune, at the turn of the twentieth century,“[t]he meatpacking industry seemed to embody everything that was wrong with American society, operating largely in secret, wielding unchecked power, threatening the health of workers and consumers. As Sinclair later argued, …the beef trust was ‘the incarnation of blind and insensate greed . . . the Great Butcher . . . the spirit of capitalism made flesh.’” “I Aimed for the Public’s Heart…and I Hit It In the Stomach,” Chicago Tribune (21 May 2006). Image source: http://www.capitalcentury.com/1906.html
  • 14. In one well-known passage, Sinclair described the goings-on of a meatpacking plant: “[T]he meat would be shoveled into carts, and the man who did the shoveling would not trouble to lift out a rat even when he saw one—there were things that went into the sausage in comparison with which a poisoned rat was a tidbit. There was no place for the men to wash their hands before they ate their dinner, and so they made a practice of washing them in the water that was to be ladled into the sausage. There were the butt-ends of smoked meat, and the scraps of corned beef, and all the odds and ends of the waste of the plants, that would be dumped into old barrels in the cellar and left there. Under the system of rigid economy which the packers enforced, there were some jobs that it only paid to do once in a long time, and among these was the cleaning out of the waste barrels. Every spring they did it; and in the barrels would be dirt and rust and old nails and stale water—and cartload after cartload of it would be taken up and dumped into the hoppers with fresh meat, and sent out to the public’s breakfast.” (Chapter 14) Boiling vats used to prepare hogs for hair removal, circa 1890. Assembly line techniques, or “disassembly” line techniques, were used very effectively in Chicago's Union stockyards, says Slaughterhouse author Dominic Pacyga. Courtesy of Dominic A. Pacyga/University of Chicago Pres
  • 15. Sinclair’s exposé sparked public disgust and outrage about the unsanitary conditions of meatpacking, which resulted in passage of the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, and, ultimately, the establishment of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). A century later, the Chicago Tribune reflected on these new laws: “The results were far from perfect, but a new template had been created, one that declared the public interest to be more important than the demands of private interests. Sinclair was disappointed, however, by the impact of The Jungle. It had been written to help meatpacking workers, not to improve the quality of meat. ‘I aimed for the public’s heart,’ Sinclair later wrote, ‘and by accident hit it in the stomach.’” Compare Sinclair’s description to the conditions of slaughterhouses in the 21st century. Would he be surprised by the state of meat production and processing more than one hundred years after his findings? To what extent is “the jungle” an apt metaphor for the conditions of a slaughterhouse? Why might Americans (or the federal government) be less easily upset or moved to action by descriptions, images, and even videos of industrial meat production today than a century ago?
  • 16. Slaughterhouse Workers (cont’d) • Physical dangers, all made worse by the high speed of the “disassembly line”: • Chronic aches and pains in hands, wrists, elbows, shoulders, back, etc. due to repeated motions (“repetitive stress”). • Close physical proximity to other workers: • Increased risk of lacerations (much work is still done by hand with a knife). • Increased exposure to illness (e.g. COVID-19, which killed at least 250 workers in 2020 in 41 major outbreaks in slaughterhouses owned by three companies across 20 states). • Exposure to biological agents of livestock (e.g. vomit, feces, viruses), including some that are antibiotic resistant. • Fast-moving heavy carcasses hanging overhead can cause physical injury, dismemberment, or death. • Long shifts, including mandatory overtime, can lead to physical and mental exhaustion, making the work even more dangerous. • Psychological toll of killing live animals (see Pachirat). • Many slaughterhouse do not offer paid sick leave, even well into the pandemic. • High turnover rate (by some estimates at 100 percent annually) means many workers are not very experienced. Sources: Food Empowerment Project, https://foodispower.org/human-labor-slavery/slaughterhouse- workers/#:~:text=The%20workers%20suffer%20chronic%20pains,is%20physically%20and%20mentally%20exhausting; NPR, https://www.npr.org/sections/coronavirus-live-updates/2021/02/01/962877199/meatpacking-companies-osha-face-investigation-over-coronavirus-in-plants
  • 17. A scandal at a Tyson plant, reported in December, highlights the routine dehumanization of slaughterhouse workers (typically poor people of color, including many foreign-born), by managers (typically working class, white, and native-born). During the early months of the pandemic, President Trump deployed the Defense Production Act to keep slaughterhouse open while also shielding corporations from legal liability for workers who got sick with COVID-19 due to dangerous working conditions.
  • 18.
  • 19. The Argument of “120 + 1” After working undercover in a slaughterhouse, Pachirat described the process by which consumers distance themselves from the act of killing the animals they eat, instead shifting moral blame to workers, many of whom are members of subordinate racial groups and have limited other opportunities for employment: “Months after I stopped working on the kill floor, I argued with a friend over who was more morally responsible for the killing of the animals: those who ate the meat or the 121 workers who did the killing. She maintained, passionately and with conviction, that the people who did the killing were more responsible because they were the ones performing the physical actions that took the animals’ lives. Those who ate the meat, she claimed, were only indirectly responsible. I took the opposite position, holding that those who benefited at a distance, delegating this terrible work to others while disclaiming responsibility for it, bore more moral responsibility, particularly in contexts like the slaughterhouse, where those with the fewest opportunities in society performed the dirty work. My friend’s position was the ‘120+1’ argument, an argument replicated across myriad realms where morally dirty work is performed by a select few, out of the sight of the many who implicitly or explicitly authorize it but manage to evade responsibility for it by virtue of their citizenship, the taxes they pay, their race, their sex, or the actions of their ancestors” (pg. 555). --Timothy Pachirat, “Slaughterhouse Workers” (2013) The ”knocker” at work. Image credit: Jungyeon Roh
  • 20.

Editor's Notes

  1. Tomato pickers labor in the fields of Taylor & Fulton Packing, which recently signed on to the Fair Food Program founded by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. Lisa M. Alvarez / Associated Press https://modernfarmer.com/2016/01/fair-food/
  2. Launched during the labor shortages of World War II, the bracero program led to 4.6 million legal border crossings of temporary workers to the United States. Complaints by labor unions and others about braceros lowering wages for Americans helped bring the program to an end in 1964. (Leonard Nadel Collection / National Museum of American History) On arrival, the United States officials took Braceros to processing centers, searched them for, weapons, marijuana or other contraband, and sprayed them with DDT, a dangerous insecticide that is now banned. The photographer, Leonard Nadel, captioned this photograph: "Much in the same manner and feeling used in handling livestock, upon crossing over the bridge from Mexico at Hidalgo, Texas, the men are herded into groups of 100 through a makeshift booth sprayed with DDT."
  3. https://www.farmaid.org/blog/fact-sheet/immigration-and-the-food-system/
  4. https://www.lib.niu.edu/2006/iht1320636.html