Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Human Rights and Factory Farming

This is a part of a series on the many factors that went into my decision to become a vegetarian. I believe we all have a responsibility to ourselves to be aware of where our food comes from. I hope to shed light on the food industry and share why I do what I do. I also hope to encourage conversation and critical thinking about these issues. Previous installments: Environmental Effects of Meat and Dairy and Infectious Disease and Factory Farming.

Hyperlinked text/images are sources.

Today's topic: Human Rights and Factory Farming

Factory farming is driven by profit. The entire factory farming system became a cheap and effective way to mass-produce meat and dairy for the growing population of America. Quick production of meat is the key to the success of the slaughterhouse, with some houses processing over 24,000 cows, chickens and pigs per day.

The push for rapid production of meat has put an insurmountable pressure on the workers. Factory farms have lowered standards and have consistently subjected workers to hazardous conditions and labor violations. Many of the workers are immigrants and have been exploited unfairly by these companies, making this abuse a very serious human rights issue.

There are over 500,000 animal workers in America, and many of them are undocumented laborers. A large portion are from Mexico and Latin America and are highly recruited by employers because they are less likely to complain about hazardous conditions or be aware of worker rights in the US. As an added struggle, many of these workers don't speak English and lack the ability to speak up and fight for their rights. Human Rights Watch calls the issue a matter of "systematic human rights abuses."

The following is a clip from the movie Food, Inc. that documents some of the issues these workers face.

After watching, it's hard not to be struck by the amount of abuse and mistreatment that's happening in this system. Just like many will not stand for animal cruelty, I believe we cannot stand for the mistreatment of humans in our country.

Health Risks
Factory farming is a highly wasteful and environmentally damaging process. Pesticide use and gasses from animal waste do a number on our environment. Unsurprisingly, these chemicals pose a serious risk to full-time factory workers.

Two gasses in particular, ammonia and hydrogen sulfide are incredibly toxic to humans. These gasses are produced by the incredible amounts of animal waste and manure. Ammonia and hydrogen sulfide have been shown to build up to toxic levels inside animal processing facilities. These levels cause severe respiratory illness with over 70% of pig slaughterhouse workers experiencing respiratory distress. These gasses don't stay just inside the slaughterhouse, either, with one study showing a frightening increase in infant mortality from these gasses in the counties surrounding factory farms.
Additionally, there are a high number of workplace injuries these workers face due to the rapid production speed and dangerous nature of their work. Some studies cite 1 in 5 poultry workers being injured on the job. Benefits from these jobs rarely cover healthcare, and in the case of undocumented workers, there are no options for affordable treatment for workplace-related injuries.

Labor Violations
Even more depressing than the health conditions these workers struggle with are the work conditions they are forced into. Extremely long hours coupled with low wages make for a very stressful environment, but it gets worse. Some workers have reported not being able to take a break at all, even to use the restroom, and have spent entire shifts covered in their own (and animal) feces. These restrictions have made the quality of life for slaughterhouse workers extremely poor, with health, psychological and other issues going vastly underreported for fear of job loss.

Immigration Issues
One of the saddest issues that meatpacking workers face are the immigration laws and policies in effect in America. As shown in the clip above, meatpacking companies place ads and bus in undocumented workers to provide cheap labor for their plants. After using the laborers for cheap and highly dangerous work, these same companies then enter into agreements with law enforcement officials to deport and arrest the very workers that keep their production alive. This is one of the most unjust aspects of the factory farming industry, and the most heartbreaking.
So what are we as consumers left to do? Federal and state regulation agencies have been lax about policies and there is a significant issue of complacency within the system. We cannot choose to let this abuse continue and I encourage everyone to consider the people behind the cuts of meat found in the grocery. A few ways you can make a difference:
  • Consider supporting the United Farm Workers organization, which pushes for stricter regulation and fair benefits for workers.
  • Reducing your meat and dairy consumption can have significant impacts on the industry and by choosing to do this, you choose to not support unfair labor environments.
  • In some states, you can purchase meat with the UFW logo on the package, ensuring that meat came from a reliable and just source.

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