Category Archives: Workers

The Forgotten Casualties of Meat – Slaughterhouse workers

slaughterhouse-workerThere’s at least 150,000 of them in America alone. Many authorities consider them to have the worst job in America and few can stand to stick at this job for more than a year. They suffer badly, both physically and emotionally, and by many measures they have the most dangerous job in America. Almost no one speaks up for them. Even fewer stand up for them. They’re slaughterhouse workers.

While there’s been much written and talked about regarding the plight of animals in the slaughterhouse, little has been said about the workers. What about them? We thought we would give you a brief report on these forgotten casualties of the meat industry. While many consider that they are part of the problems caused by meat, we recognize that, in a way, they are its victims as well.

Our story begins about a hundred years ago with the publishing of the powerful expose, The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. In reading about the abuse of both animal and worker alike, not to mention the filth and contamination, the public was outraged and President Theodore Roosevelt was moved to take action.

At first it was mostly the sanitation which saw the most improvement, but by the 1940’s and 50’s worker conditions began to rapidly improve, and by the 1960’s the workers had better pay and working conditions.

But during the 1970’s things began to unravel. The speed of the slaughter and processing lines were greatly sped up, resulting in a huge increase in serious injuries and psychological stress. Worker pay started to decline as well, and union membership and influence were greatly diminished. The current situation is really bad and entails some of the most abusive working circumstances imaginable. Employee turnover rates of 80-100% per year are common at slaughterhouses.

The rate of worker injury is now triple that of other manufacturing and processing jobs. Slaughterhouse worker injuries run the gamut of everything from repetitive motion injuries, to serious cuts and amputations, to a high incidence of certain cancers and autoimmune diseases that are strongly associated with handling meat. Human Rights Watch concludes that slaughterhouse workers have the most dangerous job in America, and even the US Government Accountable Office (USGAO) says that they face much greater risks than other workers. The problem of worker safety may be even worse than the statistics show as under-reporting is often rampant. Indeed a congressional investigation found failures to report even serious injuries, requiring hospitalization or even amputation, were widespread.

One of the leading determinants of the injury rate at slaughterhouses is the speed of the disassembly line. The faster it runs the more likely a worker is to get hurt. The processing speed has been greatly increased in recent years in the drive to maximize profits and produce cheap meat. Back when The Jungle was written, a worker was expected to process about 50 cattle per hour. Twenty years ago the line was sped up to 175 an hour. Today, it’s up to almost 400 an hour. Much of the work is done with various very sharp knives and other implements with some workers making as much as 10,000 cuts in an 8 hour shift. Under these conditions, injuries of strain, serious wounds, and even some fatalities, are all but inevitable.

The risks go well beyond the physical stress and strain of the work itself and make no mistake it is grueling. They also face an increased risk of some serious diseases. For instance working with meat has been shown to increase the risk of leukemia and lymphoma. In fact the increased risk of these diseases extends from meat workers from the slaughterhouse all the way down to the supermarket butcher. There are other disease risks besides cancer that have doctors worried. One is Progressive Inflammatory Neuropathy (PIN) an autoimmune disease that results in nerve damage caused by the body’s reaction to pig brains which are processed in pork packing plants. This terrible disease causes both pain and loss of function as the nervous tissue endures damage from being attacked by the body itself.

Not to go unmentioned is the extraordinary psychological stress caused not only by the grueling work, but also from the emotional effects of being involved with killing and dismembering so many animals, often covered in their organs and tissue, and standing in their blood while doing it. There are numerous reports of high levels of drug use at meatpacking plants and new research indicates that these stressed-out workers become prone to criminal behavior in general.

University of Windsor Criminology professor Amy Fitzgerald says statistics show that the link between slaughterhouses and brutal crime is fact. In a recent study, Fitzgerald crunched numbers from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report database, census data, and arrest and offence reports from 581U.S.counties from 1994 to 2002. According to the professor, as the number of slaughterhouse workers in a community increases, the crime rate also increases. Fitzgerald controlled for factors such as the influx of new residents when slaughterhouses open, high numbers of young men — even the number of immigrants – but the data was clear. Nor could the violence be blamed on factory work itself. Fitzgerald compared slaughterhouse communities to those with comparable industries — dangerous, repetitive work that didn’t involve killing animals. These were not associated with a rise in crime at all. The numbers leave few explanations other than the slaughterhouses being somehow to blame. According to Professor Fitzgerald, “The unique thing about slaughterhouses is that the workers are not dealing with inanimate objects, but instead dealing with live animals coming in and then killing them and processing what’s left of them.”

The labels on meat packages don’t include all the ingredients. They may list the saturated fat and cholesterol – reason enough to avoid it – but they don’t include the animal suffering, both on the factory farm and then all too often later in the slaughterhouse. Nor do the labels include the staggering amounts of environmental degradation involved in its production. We can now add to the list of missing ingredients, “made by underpaid workers who experience high rate of injury and disease.” By becoming a vegetarian, you will not only be rejecting meat products, you’ll also be rejecting all the ingredients that went into producing it.

The High Price of Pork

transport pigWhen it comes to pork, there’s a high price to be paid by the workers, by the environment, and perhaps worst of all, by the pigs themselves. The scale of the problem is enormous. We raise 120 million pigs each year in the US, and many millions more are raised around the world.

The environment pays a high price for concentrated factory-style pig farming. Factory pig farms produce huge amounts of manure – much more than can be used as fertilizer. This manure is stored in lagoons that can leak or break open after a good rain, and cause massive amounts of water pollution as the runoff enters the lakes and streams. This results in massive fish kills and food chain disruption. Methane, a greenhouse gas much more damaging than carbon dioxide, is given off from these lagoons, contributing to global warming, and the intense smell reduces the air quality in the surrounding neighborhood to an often unbearable degree.

Pig farming is wasteful too. Pigs, like other farm animals, are food factories in reverse, returning far less in pork than the calories and protein they are fed, since most of the nutrition fed to a pig is used for the animal’s energy and metabolism. When there’s so much hunger in the world, and most of the world’s agricultural land is already being used to the maximum, feeding so much of our crops to farm animals is not the best way to feed people. The situation can be summed up by saying that pork production is both wasteful and polluting.

Things aren’t so good for the slaughterhouse workers either. Many of the more than 150,000 in America work in pig slaughterhouses. By many measures they have the worst and most dangerous job in America, and they suffer badly, both physically and emotionally. Few can stand to stick at this job for more than a year. Almost no one speaks up for them. While many consider slaughterhouse workers to be part of the problem caused by pork, we recognize that they are its victims as well, as they pay a high price for working in this industry and only do so because of the lack of other options available to them.

But it is the pigs themselves that pay the highest price. Most pregnant pigs spend most of their lives “stored” in crates so small that they cannot move more than a couple of inches, and can never turn around. For almost her entire life, iron bars will hold a mother pig on the slotted concrete floor as she produces litter after litter. Her heaving belly, waving head and dark-rimmed eyes are the only parts she seems free to move. These enclosures, called gestation crates — and separate farrowing crates that hold sows while they give birth and suckle their newborns — have unleashed a furious battle between pork producers who call these crates safe, and opponents who say they amount to cruelty.

Moving animals from one stall to another, or onto the truck to the slaughterhouse, is where much egregious abuse occurs. Weeks after taking a job as a breeding technician at Eagle Point Farms, an anguished Sharee Santorineos sat down and wrote a three-page complaint. “I seen pigs that are pregnant beat with steel bars,” said her letter to the Illinois Bureau of Animal Health and Welfare. “I seen them kicked all over their body.” But, as is so often the case, no action was taken. This story is repeated again and again across the country.

Even under the most controlled conditions within the industry, farm animal transport is stressful and harsh. The animals are deprived of food, water, and bedding during transport. Trucks are so overcrowded that animals are unable to rest, and may trample or fight with one another in search of space. This sad chain of events ends in the slaughterhouse. And, as the saying goes, if slaughterhouses had glass walls we’d all be vegetarians.

While we applaud those working for animal welfare to improve conditions for the animals, and the environmentalists for trying to enforce regulations to protect the ecology, the only real solution to this problem is a vegetarian solution. By following a vegetarian diet, we reduce the demand and therefore reduce the production of pork. If enough people were to go veg, the pigs, the workers and the environment would all be spared the high price of pork.

Slavery in Seafood

Thai fishing boat with peopleThe seafood industry in Thailand suffers from widespread worker abuse amounting to slavery, according to a recent report by the nonprofit organization Verité. Virtually all American and European companies that buy seafood from Thailand are at risk of receiving products tainted by slavery, according to this report, which was released on Monday. The report catalogs deceptive recruitment practices, hazardous working conditions and very severe violence on fishing boats and in processing factories.

Most of Thailand’s seafood workers are migrants from neighboring Cambodia or Burma, brought into Thailand illegally by traffickers, provided fake documents and often actually sold to boat captains, the report said. On fishing boats, these workers routinely face limited access to medical care for injuries or infection, work 16 hour days, seven days a week, endure chronic sleep deprivation, and suffer from an insufficient supply of water for drinking, showering or cooking, the report found. They are not free to quit or leave. Often they are “kept” for year or even extended periods of time. The evidence of abuse is often just buried at sea. One Burmese worker said, “When someone dies, he gets thrown into the water.”

We reported on this sad state of affairs two years ago with the hope that conditions would improve. The Thai ambassador to the US says they take the problem seriously, but while they have clamped down a bit, it’s still not nearly enough.

Other human casualties of the animal products industry include those who work in slaughterhouses. While there’s no suggestion of slavery, slaughterhouse workers also face well documented abuses and very dangerous working conditions.

While authorities try to improve these problems, the best answer is to go veg. You’ll not only stop supporting worker abuse, but you’ll help the animals and the environment as well.

Remember the Workers

Cesar Chavez

Cesar Chavez

It’s Labor Day, so don’t forget the workers.

We’ve often written in the past about the health, environmental and animal welfare problems associated with meat production. But at this time of year, let’s take a moment to remember the workers who often face very exploitative and harsh conditions in that industry as well. Please visit our posts on slaughterhouse workers, fishing boat workers and the famous labor leader Cesar Chavez to learn more.

New Slaughterhouse rules make things worse

SlaughterhouseJust when we thought the slaughterhouses couldn’t get any worse for workers, consumers and animals alike, new rules are coming out of Washington DC that will make the whole situation worse than ever.

Under the “Modernization of Poultry Slaughter Inspection” rule, a processing line could run at 170 carcasses per minute, and only one inspector- employed by the company that owns the processing plant- would be required to be on duty.  The new rules do not even mandate training for these company inspectors, whereas USDA inspectors undergo extensive training to allow them to fulfill these tasks under the current inspection system.

“These rules essentially privatize poultry inspection, and pave the way for others in the meat industry to police themselves,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch.

With most meat inspectors replaced by untrained slaughterhouse employees, and the kill rate increased to almost 3 chickens a second, it is virtually impossible to do any reliable testing.

The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service says that this proposed rule would provide the framework for action to provide public health-based inspection in all establishments that slaughter amenable poultry species,” according to the rule’s official summary. However, reduced inspections make contamination with disease-causing bacteria all the more likely.

With the kill rate higher, worker stress is likely to get worse. Working in a slaughterhouse is already one of the most dangerous and stressful jobs in the country, as we’ve explained in a previous posting.

Last but surely not least, a higher kill rate is very likely to make matters even worse for the chickens. Many people are surprised to learn that unlike the very minimal legal protection that cows have, chickens have no laws to prevent cruelty at all. As the saying goes, if slaughterhouses had glass walls we’d all be vegetarians!

The situation is so bad that 68 Members of Congress have signed and sent a letter sent to the USDA demanding rules that meaningfully protect all involved.  The letter urges the USDA to “withdraw the proposed rule until the agency has thoroughly addressed its impact on the public, workers, and animals and adherence to good commercial practices.”

We can only hope that the USDA reconsiders the new rules. In the meantime there’s something you can do. Year after year the slaughterhouses continue to get worse and worse. The best solution to this problem is the vegetarian solution. By following a healthy diet composed of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, beans and other legumes and nuts, you’ll be reducing the demand for chickens until, someday, there won’t be a need for any of them to be killed.

Obama Adminstration Chickens Out

Caged chickensThe news about chicken just keeps getting worse. As if we needed yet another reason not to eat chicken, the Obama administration has just caved in to “big chicken” by issuing new slaughterhouse regulations. These will save the industry over $256 million every year by speeding up the pace of processing and reducing the number of required food safety inspectors, further compromising both consumer and worker safety. If the White House signs off on the USDA’s proposed regulations as expected, poultry plants could speed up their slaughter lines later this year. The maximum speed for chickens would increase from 140 birds per minute to 175 per minute, and for turkeys, from 45 birds to 55 per minute, and an antiseptic spray will substitute for inspectors.

Workers, who already often complain of carpal tunnel and other musculoskeletal disorders, will have to pluck, cut and sort birds even faster. We’ve already written about how slaughterhouse workers have one of the most dangerous and abusive jobs in the country.

To keep speeds up, the new regulations “would allow visibly contaminated poultry carcasses to remain online for treatment” rather than being discarded or removed for off-line cleaning, as is now common practice. The proposed rules say “all carcasses” on the line would be treated with antimicrobial chemicals “whether they are contaminated or not.” Worse still, when the chicken is tested it is allowed to continue on its way towards being eaten, since tests results won’t come back until much later. This is especially troubling since 97% of raw chicken in U.S. supermarkets are contaminated with bacteria that could make you sick, according to a new Consumer Reports study. We have recently posted how many of those disease-causing bacteria have become resistant to antibiotics.

Then there’s the issue of the safety of the antiseptics themselves. Government agencies have not conducted independent research into the possible side effects on consumers of ingesting the disinfectant residues, not to mention the increased worker exposure.

All of this adds to the many other problems caused by chicken. High levels of saturated fat and cholesterol contribute to clogged arteries and other diseases. Cooking chicken produces more cancer-causing heterocyclic amines (HCA’s) than any other meat when cooked. Raising chickens also causes massive water pollution and contributes to global warming. And the poor chickens are commonly jammed into cages so crowded they can’t even turn around, causing endless animal suffering. The ever-increasing bad news about chicken will certainly encourage more people to think twice about choosing chicken for dinner.

Slavery in the Fishing Industry

Thai fishing boatWe’ve written in the past about just how miserable it is to work in a slaughterhouse, given all the abuses and injuries that take place there. This article takes a look at worker conditions at the slaughterhouse’s counterpart on the world’s oceans and in seafood processing plants.

Most of us live and spend almost all of our time on land. All too often, what goes on in the ocean is out of our sight and therefore out of mind. But the problems and abuses on fishing vessels and at seafood processing plants are just as bad or even worse than in land-based slaughterhouses, and many of the workers are nearly slaves, often literally sold by human traffickers. You may have thought that slavery was a thing of the past – think again!

Meet Vannak Prum from Myanmar (formerly known as Burma). Fisherman like Prum are often sold into bondage. Once aboard a fishing vessel, they report 20-hour days under mind-numbing conditions, with minimal fresh food or water, no medicine apart from aspirin, cramped bunks, unsafe conditions and the relentless smell of fish. It gets worse. Beatings and even murder takes place far too often. The United Nations Inter Agency Project on Human Trafficking interviewed Burmese fishermen, such as Prum, on Thai boats and found that 59 percent said they witnessed a murder by their captain.

Prum was sold onto a Thai fishing boat the length of a basketball court, where he worked in tight conditions with 10 other men. “I didn’t get paid,” he says. “I remained in the middle of the sea and worked day and night.” Many fishermen complain that captains often give workers drugs, mainly amphetamines, so they will keep working through the night. Prum says he was kept on the boat for three years without ever being able to go ashore even once.

Unfortunately the problem is widespread. For instance, Yusril is an Indonesian fisherman on a South-Korean-owned boat. On March 25, 2011, Yusril became a near slave. Yusril, and several shipmates who corroborated his story, was held aboard a fishing boat where Indonesian fishermen were subjected to physical and sexual abuse by the ship’s operators. Their overlords told them not to complain or fight back, or else they would be sent home where their agents would hurt them. Such coerced labor is modern-day slavery, as the United Nations defines the crime. Yusril’s story, and that of other survivors of abuse, reveals how the $85 billion global fishing industry profits from the labor of people forced to work for little or no pay, often under the threat of violence. They often compelled the Indonesian fishermen to work without proper safety equipment for up to 30 hours straight, swearing at them if they so much as asked for coffee or a bathroom break. Even when fishermen were not hauling catches, 16-hour workdays were standard.

Worker abuse is not confined to fishing boats. At an age when she should have been in a classroom, Thazin Mon discovered her knack for peeling shrimp. To help support her Burmese migrant family, the 14-year-old pulled 16-hour shifts, seven days a week, for less than $3 a day. “I am uneducated, so I work. I have to work bravely,” she says. Although she was the best peeler in the factory, speed was never high enough. Mon was beaten if she slowed down, she said, and when she asked for a day off to rest hands swollen with infection, her boss kicked her and threatened rape. Problems for Burmese migrants typically start as soon as they link up with brokers who promise steady work and a decent salary, only to sell them into a nearly inescapable cycle of debt bondage.

While not nearly as bad as overseas operations, the domestic seafood industry can also mistreat workers. For instance, C.J.’s Seafood, based in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, was recently suspended by a major retailer after a monitoring group found that its managers had made employees work 24-hour shifts, locked some workers in the plant, and threatened employees with violence against them and their relatives in Mexico, to discourage them from complaining to authorities.

While human rights and worker standards are often required by some retailers, verification is often difficult or impossible. Fishing boats work independently at sea and are not easy to regulate or inspect, allowing abuses to take place. So no-one really knows the full extent of the problem. Seafood processing plants are more susceptible to inspection, but with so many located in foreign lands, and with high levels of corruption surrounding them, the true extent of the land-based worker abuse is also hard to ascertain. To make matters even worse the workers are often much too afraid to complain themselves.

The British organization, the Environmental Justice Foundation, sums the matter up well when they state, “Slavery is with us today, with tens of thousands of people made victims every year – commonly the poorest and most vulnerable individuals. Nowhere is this more true than in particular sections of the global fishing industry…Many of us are supporting the perpetrators of slavery, trafficking in persons, forced and bonded labour ourselves – most often unwittingly – through our food purchasing decisions. Seafood we consume today is being caught or processed by these modern-day slaves. Violence, forced detention, and even murder are commonplace, while those perpetrating these crimes all too often go unpunished.”

Fishing and seafooding, including aquiculture, are leading causes of ecological destruction and pollution. Far from sustainable, the world’s fisheries are in very serious decline. Scientists have now determined that fish indeed feel pain, not to mention that sensitive sea mammals such as dolphins, seals and porpoises often get caught in industrial nets. With many of the health claims for fish not panning out, and given the high levels of saturated fat and cholesterol in both fish and seafood, the vegetarian advantage becomes more evident than ever. If you’re looking for fish and seafood alternatives, why not check out some of the new companies, such as Sophie’s Vegan Seafood, that are producing high quality alternatives, and receiving rave reviews.  You’ll be doing both human and sea creature alike a world of good.