More than a century ago, when Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle, the workers in American meatpacking plants were recent immigrants, largely from eastern Europe. Sinclair eloquently depicted the routine mistreatment of these poor workers. They were employed for long hours at low wages, exposed to dangerous working conditions, sexually abused, injured on the job, and fired after getting hurt. In the novel, the slaughterhouses of Chicago serve as a metaphor for the ruthless greed of America in the age of the robber barons, of a society ruled by the law of the jungle.
According to a recent study by the Center for a Livable Future at Johns Hopkins University, “The industrial produce and animal production and processing systems in the U.S. would collapse without the immigrant and migratory workforce.” The handful of multinational companies that dominate our food system have for many years embraced the opportunity to exploit them for profit. The immigrant workers arrested in Mississippi the other day were earning about $12.50 an hour. Adjusted for inflation, during the late 1970s, the wages of meatpacking workers in Iowa and Colorado were about $50 an hour.
The immigration raid symbolised how an industry with a long history of defying the law has managed to shift the blame and punishment onto workers. 680 immigrant workers—almost all Latino, many of them women—to waiting buses with their hands zip-tied behind their backs. One worker, an American citizen, was shot with a Taser for resisting arrest. Children gathered outside the poultry plants crying as their parents were taken away and sent to private prisons. No senior executive of a major food processing company was arrested for violating immigration, worker-safety, food-safety, antitrust, or environmental laws.
FastFood Nation, by Eric Schlosser The Chain, by Ted Genoways and Scratching Out a Living, by Angela Stuesse have concluded: What is described as an immigrant “invasion” is actually a corporate recruitment drive for poor, vulnerable, undocumented, often desperate workers who have used them to break unions and to cut wages by as much as 50 percent. With out unions to defend them workers faced line speeds being increased, government oversight gettingreduced, and health and safety standards compromised where injured workers were once again forced to remain on the job or get fired.
One of the poultry plants raided last week. B. C. Rogers, launched a hiring drive in 1994 called “The Hispanic Project.” Its goal was to replace African American workers, who were seeking a union, with immigrant workers who’d be more pliant. It placed ads in Miami newspapers, arranged transportation for immigrants, and charged them for housing in dilapidated trailers. Within four years, it had brought roughly 5,000 mainly Latino workers to Mississippi. The poultry industry expanded throughout the rural South during the 1990s, drawn by theabsence of labor unions.
Today countless farmworkers and meat-packing workers who entered the United States without proper documentation are the bedrock of the American food system.