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Subject: New York Times on Slaughtershouses
February 6, 2005 - Editorial
What Meat Means
Most Americans do not want to know how the meat they eat is produced, if only so they can continue to eat it. Nearly every aspect of meat production in America is disturbing, from the way animals are raised, to inadequate inspection of the final product. When it comes to what happens in the slaughterhouse, most of us mentally avert our eyes. Yet in the past decade, the handling of livestock on their way to the killing floor has actually been one of the parts of the business that has improved most significantly. 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.
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.
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Concerned Citizens of Hartford
20 February 2005