Plight of the Worker

by Kellen

Meat pack

[Getty Images]

Welcome to the Jungle

Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle provided the first truly ground breaking exposé on the horrors of the meatpacking industry. Sinclair went into great detail about the dangerous and alarming conditions that the average immigrant packing plant worker endured on a daily basis. Concerning the effects his novel had Sinclair said “I aimed at the public’ s heart and by accident hit its stomach.”

While hitting the public’s stomach was unintentional it was instrumental in the passage of the federal Pure Food and Drug and Meat Inspection Acts of 1906 just one year after the publication of The Jungle. Both pieces of legislation were signed by President Theodore Roosevelt on the same day and strict regulation of the new policies set the public’s mind at ease. Enforcement of the Meat Inspection Act was assigned to what we know as the Food Safety and Inspection Service that is to this day a part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The Department of Agriculture is a far cry from the Progressive Era Reform from once it came with its approval of cloned meat, pending approval of the inspection of horse meat for human consumption and continued approval of the use of antibiotics in livestock and hormones in dairy cows.

The following passage is from The Jungle and describes just a few of the horrific consequences felt by those working in the early meatpacking plants.

“Of the butchers and floorsmen, the beef-boners and trimmers, and all those who used knives, you could scarcely find a person who had the use of his thumb; time and time again the base of it had been slashed, till it was a mere lump of flesh against which the man pressed the knife to hold it. The hands of these men would be criss-crossed with cuts, until you could no longer pretend to count them or to trace them. They would have no nails,—they had worn them off pulling hides; their knuckles were swollen so that their fingers spread out like a fan.”

Surely things have changed in over a century though right?

The Killing Floor

Financing a multi-billion dollar business in the most hazardous industry means high rates of turnover, unsanitary workplace conditions riddled with animal remains and feces, injuries from the operation of dangerous equipment, repetitive motion tasks and lack of readily available safety gear.

“The injury rate in slaughterhouses is about three times higher than the rate in a typical American factory. Every year more than one-quarter of the meatpacking workers in this country – roughly forty thousand men and women- suffer an injury or work related illness that requires medical attention beyond first aid.” Fast Food Nation 

Illegal immigrants are attracted to this type of work as there is little to no education required for employment, injuries and turnover make more jobs available to the undocumented worker and it doesn’t require that the worker speak English.

Lack of documentation verifying citizenship voids the employer from being responsible for healthcare that would benefit the worker should they be injured on the job. These workers can also be fired without warning so their likelihood of lodging a complaint about working conditions is slim. The location of meatpacking plants in secluded rural areas can also account for the lack of strict enforcement of OSHA safety regulations and the basic consideration for Human Rights.

The Most Dangerous Job

In chapter 8 of Fast Food Nation Eric Schlosser takes a tour of a slaughterhouse and sees what most who consume meat would rather remain ignorant to indefinitely.

“Knocker (who is responsible for stunning the cattle by shooting a bolt into its head. The knocker does this for eight and a half hours straight), Sticker (responsible for slitting the animal’s throat, severing the carotid artery for eight and a half hours straight), First Legger, Knuckle Dropper, Navel Boner, Splitter Top/Bottom Butt, Feed Kill Chain- the names of job assignments at a modern slaughterhouse convey some of the brutality inherent in the work.”

Line speed is integral to the entire process with increased profits being at stake. To keep up with growing demands for speed on the killing floor many workers have resorted to taking methamphetamine to stay alert and energized. There is also great pressure on the workers to not report injuries because “the annual bonuses of plant foremen and supervisors are often based in part on the injury rate of their workers.”

The worst yet according to Schlosser is the job of the late night cleaning crew. Their cleaning tool is a high powered hose that shoots a mixture of chlorine and water heated to 180 degrees which after fog has filled the factory and making visibility impossible often gets sprayed on other workers. They are also working while the machinery in the factory continues to run. ” [A] sanitation worker lost an arm in a machine. Now he folds towels in the locker room.” All of this and “They earn hourly wages that are about one-third lower than those of regular production employees.”

There are countless other horrors experienced by those working in the most dangerous industry but the truth is that when the average consumer demands fast, low-priced meat without regard for its origins they implicitly condone the horrible practices of the meat industry.