The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported yesterday that a human rights group has looked closely at a major industry in one country and found safety conditions like those of a century ago, systematic disrespect for workers’ rights and widespread disregard of international labor standards. Yes, conditions for U.S. meatpacking workers are scandalous.
Human Rights Watch last week released a comprehensive study of the meatpacking and processing industry. It’s a damning report that shows the widespread effects on workers of constant corporate cost cutting, union busting and political irresponsibility.
Worse, as Human Rights Watch acknowledges, much of the picture was already well documented, both in official papers and previous studies. The Human Rights Watch report gives particular credit to the chilling portrayal of workplace conditions in meat plants provided a few years ago by Eric Schlosser in “Fast Food Nation.”
As the Human Rights Watch report, written by Lance Compa, and Schlosser both observe, conditions today sadly mirror those in Upton Sinclair’s classic work, “The Jungle.” Sinclair’s portrayal of meatpacking plants, which will reach its 100th anniversary next year, led to federal legislation that improved conditions for workers and made meat considerably safer for consumers.

Strong representation by unions and rising standards of living contributed not just to safety, but to good pay for workers. By early in the second half of the 20th century, Human Rights Watch shows, meatpacking workers’ pay ran above the average for manufacturing-sector workers.
That all changed rapidly in the 1980s as companies used automation to squeeze out some skills provided by union workers, held down labor costs and replaced longtime workers with constantly rotating casts of expendable employees, often newly arrived immigrants. Companies that cut costs put relentless pressure on other firms to match their conditions or get out of the business, Human Rights Watch found.
Often, the new hires lacked documentation, making them subject first to pressure to keep quiet and, more recently, a U.S. Supreme Court decision depriving them of the right to compensation when they are illegally fired for union organizing. Although the 5-to-4 decision runs contrary to international agreements and drew protests from our ally Mexico, Congress and the Bush administration have failed to change the law. Decrying the inaction, Human Rights Watch notes that the decision, known as the Hoffman case, actually has created a new, perverse incentive for employers to hire undocumented immigrants and discriminate against legal U.S. residents.
As strong unions disappeared, workplace safety deteriorated along with the pay. Human Rights Watch reports: “Injury rates had been in line with other manufacturing sectors with trade union representation, but since the breakdown of national bargaining agreements, meatpacking has become the most dangerous factory job in America, with injury rates more than twice the national average.”
Disabling repetitive stress injuries are widespread, as are lacerations. Loss of limbs and deaths also occur. Human Rights Watch documents a discouraging series of barriers that are often created to reporting and treating injuries. Injured workers also face difficulties receiving worker compensation.
Today, meat is reasonably safe to consume. Modern science was partially incorporated into the meat inspection system during the 1990s. But the evolution of such threats as E. coli, mad cow disease and other problems provide regular reminders that there are gaps in food safety as well as major successes.
Workplace safety conditions might draw more regular attention if companies hadn’t succeeded, at least to a substantial degree, in repeatedly speeding up processing of beef, pork and poultry without causing more health threats. The workers bear the increased risks of heavy, hot and dirty work with sharp instruments being performed under ever-increasing pressures for fast performance.
Human Rights Watch explains in detail how the workers’ conditions violate a host of international agreements, understandings and principles developed over a long period of time, with U.S. involvement. Once upon a time, there was even U.S. leadership.
The report contains pages of recommendations for bringing U.S. conditions up to standards. It would take concerted action by the Bush administration, Congress, the states (which enforce many worker protections) and the industry. The changes would require questioning the widespread ideology that approves squeezing unions’ ability to organize, replacing workers who strike and alternately welcoming and exploiting immigrants. Such a conversation would be difficult, but without it, we will continue to allow meat to be brought to our tables through abuses of worker rights that ought to belong to other places and times.