Sunday, February 06, 2005

Vulnerable Flesh: Human Workers In Animal Slaughterhouses

What is most alarming at the slaughterhouse is not what happens to the animals - they have already met their fate. It is what happens to the humans who work there.

The New York Times editorial writers have apparently been reading reports of the Human Rights Watch and the Government Accountability Office about the hazardous conditions under which meatpacking employees work. Following on the pattern set by the excellent workplace safety investigations or NY Times reporter David Barstow, the Times shows an all-too-rare sensitivity to the conditions facing too many American workers:
A large slaughterhouse is the truly industrial end of industrial farming. It is a factory for disassembly. Its high line speeds place enormous pressure on the workers hired to take apart the carcasses coming down the line. And because the basic job of the line is cutting flesh - hard, manual labor - the dangers are very high for meat workers, whose flesh is every bit as vulnerable as that of the pork or beef or chicken passing by.

The problem of worker safety is compounded by the fact that meatpackers, driven by the brutal economics of the industry, always try to hire the cheapest labor they can find. That increasingly means immigrants whose language difficulties compound the risks of the job. The result, according to a new report by Human Rights Watch, is "extraordinarily high rates of injury" in conditions that systematically violate human rights.

In fact, the report finds, some major players in the American meat industry prey upon a large population of immigrant workers who are either ignorant of their fundamental rights or are undocumented aliens who are afraid of calling attention to themselves. As a result, those workers often receive little or no compensation for injuries, and any attempt to organize is met with hostility.

The industry has little incentive to improve conditions on its own, except a decent regard for human rights. The only reasonable prospect of improvement depends on the enforcement of federal and state law. Unfortunately, those laws at present are too weak and too riddled with loopholes to provide the regulations needed to increase worker safety and improve workers' rights. A systematic regulatory look at the meat industry, with an eye to toughening standards, is desperately needed.

In recent years, Americans have had the habit of thinking of wide-scale workplace abuses as foreign affairs - the kind of thing that turns up in Southeast Asia, for instance. And, in a sense, the abuses found in American slaughterhouses are international matters, because so many of the workers are actually citizens of other countries. But in this case, the abuses are taking place right at home, and as part of our food chain. In a carb-conscious era, the meat processing industry should be a place of opportunity for workers who put all that protein on your plate. Right now, that is hardly the case.
One would hope that responsible members of Congress and the Bush administration -- who are allegedly so concerned with "the sanctity of life -- would reach the same conclusions from these reports.

Tomorrow we'll see what the Administration proposes to do with OSHA's budget. I'm not optimistic. After all, we may think unkindly of those who would exploit -- and even cause the death of vulnerable workers, but the President call them "my base."