New Internationalist

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

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  1. #1 AL 21 Nov 12

    A very insightful and well-written article. Some pretty shocking case studies too!

  2. #2 Georgina 21 Nov 12

    While many animal-focused documentaries and articles expose the cruelties to animals in farms, we sometimes forget or overlook the cruel treatment of those workers who are subjugated to carry out cruelty to nature. I'm glad that this article is looking at a less spoken about subject. The next step would be to hear what those workers have to say and what policy changes need to be put in place in order to protect both man and animal.

  3. #3 Jenny 21 Nov 12

    Interesting article about an overlooked subject.

  4. #4 Elyse Clapman 21 Nov 12

    A very interesting insight into other reasons to be aware of what you eat aside from living conditions for and treatment of animals. Will be passing on!

  5. #5 Sarah 21 Nov 12

    Great article. Another good reason to go vegan. :)

  6. #6 Liz 22 Nov 12

    This is unbelievable. I can't believe workers are put under such awful conditions, especially in the US.

    Sadly I think a lot of people don't know or care enough about the reality of sweatshops to change the way they shop. The appalling conditions in the global meat industry will therefore need to become much more well known before the majority of people start changing what they eat.

  7. #7 Carmel 22 Nov 12

    Great article-Interesting to read how humans are mistreated whilst mistreating animals themselves. Maybe if people were educated in this matter then they would make a change in their diets, not just for animals but also for the sake of their own species.

  8. #8 Shawn 22 Nov 12

    Ah don't even get me started. The meat industry sees the workers like they see the meats produced...something to use in any way to gain profits.

  9. #9 Haze 23 Nov 12


  10. #10 Wendy 24 Nov 12

    Interesting article. Particularly the part about exploiting illegal immigrants. I've only seen this touched on before; in the documentary film Ghosts I think...

  11. #11 Hannah 24 Nov 12

    I really had no idea that this was going on.

    Are there any examples in the UK?

    Do you have any thoughts on how this can be prevented? Obviously boycotting as a consumer, but is there anything that for example the UK could do in terms of what we agree to import, or something that supermarkets like Tesco can be doing to make sure places like this aren'€™t being given business? Also, are all factory farms like this or are this a few isolated examples?

    I find it interesting when, in the animal rights context, I hear people countering the argument against factory farming with the fact that poor westerners can'€™t afford meat from sustainable/ethical sources. I think one problem with this is that non-factory-farmed meat is treated in a similar way to organic or fair trade produce, in which it is marketed as a luxury alternative and therefore has an associated price tag. For example I know that at Sainsbury's the more ethical alternative to the factory-farmed whole chicken is more expensive than the M&S equivalent, seemingly BECAUSE it is an alternative and not the 'as standard'€™ free range meat and eggs that M&S offer. Also, if the argument is actually to promote consumer choice and give people a cheaper option, why don'€™t supermarkets offer meat which is cheaper but still not factory farmed, for example the wide variety of fish available? I'™m obviously not talking about cod or haddock here, but the less heavily fished varieties that people have never heard of, or more of the cheaper offcuts of meat perhaps. I remember watching a TV program once where they took round fish and chips to people on a high street and asked them to taste and rate the different kinds of fish. Haddock and Cod consistently came top when people were told beforehand what the varieties were, but came below other kinds of fish when tasted 'blind'€™.

    Perhaps the route of these problems is that the consumer is not really aware of where our food comes from and what it contains. This stretches all the way from battery eggs (WHY are these still on sale when they are usually only about 10p cheaper than free range???) to heavily processed meats which contain a load of garbage and carcinogens. Consumers need to smarten up and not just let ourselves be brainwashed by the marketing we are offered. We have quite a responsibility here.

    Perhaps, somewhat sadly, the knowledge that it's not 'just' animals who are affected but humans too will motivate consumers to change our habits.

    Thanks for making me aware of this, ashamed I hadn't considered it before.

  12. #13 James KJ 25 Nov 12

    While I can see where you're coming from, surely this article only puts forward an argument for saying that working standards in the food production industry should be improved, not that we should stop eating meat altogether? I don't like the fact that some t-shirts are made in sweatshops, but that doesn't stop me from wearing t-shirts altogether.

  13. #14 Chris the writer 25 Nov 12

    Thanks for your comment James KJ - my next blog will deal with exactly that point.

  14. #15 Jenny 25 Nov 12

    Yet more reasons to stop contributing to this unethical and completely unnnecessary industry! Plant based nutrition is better for us, for the environment, for the animals - it's shocking that meat production is going up when we simply can't sustain this ethically expensive and highly abusive industry. It's so easy to stop this madness - just don't buy it! Industries that systematically abuse animals and the humans who work with them only care about money - hit them where it hurts and stop feeding their greedy, abusive industries. Thank you for exposing the fact that humans are also part of this abuse - it opens up a whole other can of worms that as always lies hidden from the public. Great insight - thanks

  15. #16 Joe Leeson-Schatz 15 Apr 13

    #AgGagBad - Ag Gag laws unfairly criminalize the info instead of the abuses - Please sign and spread -

  16. #19 Grant Barnes 26 Sep 16

    This helps. Thanks!

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About the author

Chris Grezo a New Internationalist contributor

Chris Grezo is an opinionated screenplay writer and columnist who believes progressive politics and global justice are inherently linked. He believes there are ethical reasons to adopt a vegan or vegetarian diet, along with environmental and economic reasons. In his spare time Chris is active in the animal rights movement, and supports Iranian exiles in their fight for a democratic and liberal Iran.

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