My mom was born on the banks of the Amazon River in the jungles of Peru. The day before her 21th birthday, she emigrated to the United States under her father’s visa.
Soon, she was working on the assembly line at a Chicago car-parts factory. Paid by the piece and desperate to make ends meet, she quickly became the factory’s fastest line worker.
She was so fast, in fact, that the company transferred her to Michigan to train workers at their newest factory. She and her son moved in with a roommate named G. Rozeboom.
When G’s older brother Jim dropped in for a visit, it was love at first sight. A couple of years later, I arrived!
I’m the child of two hardworking parents. By doing the dishes, mowing the lawn, and helping with chores, I learned the importance of a good work ethic at a very early age.
I know from personal experience that a good work ethic includes knowing enough to STOP when the job becomes unsafe for anyone involved. Whenever working conditions become a health threat, it’s time to slow down and rethink them.
Last week, my kids and I were gathered on the couch laughing out loud at clips from the classic factory scene in Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 Modern Times. Another family favorite is I Love Lucy’s unforgettable chocolate factory conveyor-belt scene.
As funny as these scenes are, it was their accurate depiction of hard-grinding factory work that made them instant classics. Real-life conditions in many factories, however, are anything but funny.
Take meat-packing plants. I’ll be eternally grateful my Mom never worked in one. As our addiction to animal-based protein grows, demands on meat-packing employees have become truly inhuman.
This past April, the New Yorker reports, 15 U.S. poultry plants received government waivers to increase their processing line speed 25%, from 140 to 175 birds per minute — almost 3 per second!
Maintaining this breakneck speed forces the line workers to stand closer together, even though the country is in the midst of a raging pandemic. The inevitable consequence?
“Delaware health officials began testing workers outside poultry plants, and at one plant, thirty percent of the results were positive.”
By churning out more and more meat, the industry has unleashed a staggering increase in coronavirus cases. The majority of them are occurring in the predominantly immigrant communities surrounding their plants.
The Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) interactive map provides a shocking record of these outbreaks. Who are people most affected?
In Connecticut congresswoman Rosa DeLauro’s words, they’re:
“… the forgotten Americans: the migrant workers on farms, the workers at meat processing plants, the men and women of this country at factories.”
As long ago as 1906, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle laid bare working conditions in the meatpacking industry. The book’s most disturbing aspect is how little slaughterhouse working conditions have changed in the past 114 years.
Author, Sue Coe, describes a meatpacking scene in her 1995 book Dead Meat, “There is a long line of workers as far as the eye can see… They work so fast I can’t see their hands moving.”
As former Occupational Safety and Health Administration head Dr. David Michaels told the New Yorker, our food production keeps increasing regardless of the cost to workers:
“If companies cared as much about their workers as they do about their chickens, we’d be a better country.”
But the problem isn’t limited to U.S. companies. “We feel like animals,” a Dutch meat-packing plant worker recently told The Guardian. “
Ignoring factory-farm animals’ plight conditions us to forget that of factory-farm workers, who have come to “feel like animals” themselves.
We sit at home, socially distancing and feasting on meat produced by a system that exposes its poor and immigrant workers to increasingly dangerous conditions. In their world, COVID–19 is spreading at twice the national average.
After the reading I’ve done on this subject today, I question how it’s possible to consume anything processed at these facilities in good conscience.
Meat is not essential. The entire world should show some compassion and take a break from eating it!