Factory farms are the new sweatshops

Poultry factory farm in IsraelIf you’re interested in global justice, you may be aware that there are strong arguments to adopt a vegetarian or vegan diet – the prime reasons being the environmental impact of eating meat, and world food prices. Another reason, which often gets overlooked, is the appalling treatment of workers by the international meat industry and the effect of this on communities.

A Human Rights Watch report from 2005 on the state of the meat industry in the US documented that slaughterhouse workers lose limbs, suffer from massive repetitive motion injuries and frequent lacerations, and sometimes die in horrendous accidents, often as a result of extreme production-speed demands and lax health and safety protocols. The country’s Bureau of Labor Statistics has documented that in the last decade the rate of illness and injuries for slaughterhouse workers was over twice as high as the national average, and the rate of illnesses alone was over 10 times the national average. And these are ultra-conservative estimates, as the industry has been shown massively to under-report injuries in order to avoid fines. One of the reasons that slaughterhouse companies get away with such appalling working conditions is that the workforce is often made up of illegal immigrants. These illegal immigrants are threatened with being exposed and deported if they kick up a fuss.

Equally, illegal tactics are used to prevent unions forming that would push for safer working conditions. One example of such tactics is the case of Smithfield Foods in North Carolina1. At this huge, industrialized slaughterhouse 5,000 workers kill, cut and package 25,000 pigs a day. As well as firing union supporters, Smithfield Foods created an internal security force with ‘special police agency’ under North Carolina law, which allows the force’s officers to wield police-like powers. The security force arrests union supporters, and patrols the factory with guns to keep workers in line.

The unethical nature of the modern meat industry stretches across the globe. One particularly unjust example is the use of slave labour by the beef industry in Latin America. Many Brazilian cattle farms use the old trick of debt bondage to trap workers. These young men are generally used to destroy areas of the rainforest that can then be used for cattle farming. In a chilling parallel to Smithfield Foods, some farms employ armed guards to watch over the workers and threaten to murder anyone who tries to escape these isolated hell-holes.

In August 2010, Brazil’s High Labor Court declared that a company running a number of ranches had been keeping 180 workers in slavery and making them work up to 24 hours a day. There were even teenagers as young as 14 among the slaves.

Factory farming, with its propensity for terrible working conditions and negative environmental impact, has spread from the West to India, China, Brazil, Ethiopia, Argentina, Mexico, Pakistan, Taiwan, Thailand and the Philippines. It is perceived by some as beneficial: it’s more efficient and potentially more profitable, proponents say, and therefore offers the chance for developing countries to increase their income. However, it rather depends on who within the country is actually benefiting. Studies by both the World Bank and Britain’s Department for International Development argue that the spread of factory farming in the developing world is harming the poorest and reducing food security. It seems paradoxical that a process that increases the efficiency of meat production would result in communities having less secure access to food, but the evidence is mounting.

The introduction of factory farming reduces the number of farms and farmers: smallholder farmers go out of business as they can’t compete with factory farms, and the rural poor are undercut, so not only do they lose income but they stop producing food. If there is then a disease outbreak at the local factory farm, or it closes for some other reason, or there are transport problems, or there is a change in the global food markets, the rural poor will face extreme hardship since there are no longer alternative local food sources. This scenario is not unlikely: epidemics at factory farms are common, thanks to the combination of appalling conditions and over-bred livestock, which mature quickly but have poor immune systems.

Factory farmers themselves lose their autonomy as they are at the mercy of transnational companies that control both the technology and the franchises.

Workers in the international meat industry, whether in the Global North or South, suffer exploitation and terrible working conditions. Factory farms are the new sweatshops.

1 Human Rights Watch 'Abuses against workers taint US meat industry'; Human Rights Watch 'Blood, sweat and fear'; The American Prospect 'Unions come to Smithfield'

Photo: A poultry factory farm in Israel, by Reem Bar under a CC Licence