Workers handle meat organizing packing shipping loading at factory plant

Photo: El Nariz/shutterstock.com

the issues

Social Justice

Workers handle meat organizing packing shipping loading at factory plant

Photo: El Nariz/shutterstock.com

An Unjust Food System

Migrant farm workers harvest and box lettuce in San Joaquin Valley, CA

Photo: Joseph Sohm/shutterstock.com

When we sit down to eat a meal, seldom do we take into account the people who made that meal possible. Behind a majority of foods we eat like apples, oranges, carrots, hot dogs, chicken nuggets, and glasses of milk are over one million people toiling in fields, factory farms, slaughterhouses, and processing plants. These industries often treat workers as commodities and hide the dangerous work they are exposed to from the public eye.

Oftentimes these facilities are in low-income communities of color. Their employees will work long hours, suffer from a high risk of injury, and be paid minimally. Neighboring community members experience various health ailments because of careless and harmful practices of these facilities. This targeting of people of color is called environmental racism. This term was coined by civil rights leader Dr. Benjamin Chavis in 1981 and defines it as, “racial discrimination in environmental policymaking and enforcement of regulations and laws, the deliberate targeting of communities of color for toxic waste facilities, the official sanctioning of the presence of life-threatening poisons and pollutants for communities of color, and the history of excluding people of color from leadership of the environmental movement.”

Male field worker with straw hat.
“Despite the pivotal role these workers play in the U.S. food system, many of these men, women and even children work in unsafe conditions every day in exchange for a salary below the national poverty level.”
- Food Empowerment Project

Photo: F Armstrong Photography/shutterstock.com

Facts

  • Workers standing in a meat processing facility

    Photo: Dusan Petkovic/shutterstock.com

  • Meatpacking

    workers may repeat the same motion 40,000 to 100,000 times in one shift.

  • There is evidence to suggest that communities located near industrial animal agriculture facilities are prone to birth defects.

  • Between 2016 and 2018, there was an average of 1.56 reported amputations per month for workers in the meat processing industry.

  • Members of communities in close proximity to industrial pig farms may have a lower life expectancy.

Photo: Dusan Petkovic/shutterstock.com

Workers & Communities Suffer

Vertical explainer photo 1 - Processing factory chicken

Photo: Alf Ribeiro/shutterstock.com

A significant proportion of slaughterhouse workers are low-income people of color—many undocumented—who have few options but to work these hazardous jobs to provide for their families. Workers often suffer from repetitive stress injuries, musculoskeletal disorders, chronic pain, psychological trauma, and sometimes even amputations because of the frantic speed of the processing line at slaughterhouses. A worker may repeat the same motion 40,000 to 100,000 times in one shift. According to OSHA data, there are about two amputations every month among meat processing workers, and even more “severe incidents” involving hospitalization. Reports show that many migrant workers are threatened with deportation if they report an injury or mistreatment.

Slaughterhouse workers also experience psychological stress from the violent nature of their workplace. They can potentially suffer from anxiety, depression, drug and alcohol abuse, paranoia, and increased arrests.

Processing factory chicken

Photo: Alf Ribeiro/shutterstock.com

A significant proportion of slaughterhouse workers are low-income people of color—many undocumented—who have few options but to work these hazardous jobs to provide for their families. Workers often suffer from repetitive stress injuries, musculoskeletal disorders, chronic pain, psychological trauma, and sometimes even amputations because of the frantic speed of the processing line at slaughterhouses. A worker may repeat the same motion 40,000 to 100,000 times in one shift. According to OSHA data, there are about two amputations every month among meat processing workers, and even more “severe incidents” involving hospitalization. Reports show that many migrant workers are threatened with deportation if they report an injury or mistreatment.

Slaughterhouse workers also experience psychological stress from the violent nature of their workplace. They can potentially suffer from anxiety, depression, drug and alcohol abuse, paranoia, and increased arrests.

Workers pick green beans in a field.

Photo: mikeledray/shutterstock.com

Those who work on agricultural fields suffer, as well. About 60% of produce workers in the United States are immigrants, primarily from Mexico. Employers take advantage of their vulnerable situation and often cut wages, expect long work hours, and claim workers have become indebted to the company. Workers are often expected to work in the fields under very hot and humid conditions. Heat-related illnesses can impair judgment which may worsen the situation by keeping workers from acknowledging their thirst.

Laborers on agricultural fields also experience respiratory and skin disorders, heat illnesses, pesticide poisoning, and possibly an increased risk of certain cancers. In the United States, children as young as 12 years old are legally allowed to work in the fields.

Activist Elsie Herring, stands on the porch of her family home, holding a handkerchief over her mouth to filter out manure being sprayed on the field next door / Photo Credit: Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals

Photo Credit: Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals

Industrialized agriculture facilities are frequently located in low-income communities of color who often have a difficult time fighting these destructive corporations. This political disenfranchisement is called environmental racism.

Animal waste is generally kept in manure lagoons or sprayed onto nearby fields causing nitrates, hydrogen sulfide, methane, and ammonia to leach into the surrounding land, air, and water. Community members report health complications such as headaches, respiratory issues, skin infections, birth defects, and premature death. The constant stench, contaminated wells, and rampant health concerns can lower surrounding property values. Families cannot afford to leave their homes in search of a healthier environment.

North Carolina is an example of how destructive animal agriculture is. Today, the number of pigs in Duplin County, North Carolina outnumbers humans by 33 to 1. René Miller, a resident of Duplin County, currently suffers from asthma, sinus issues, and sarcoidosis because of an industrialized hog farm that sprays hog waste 50 feet from her front steps.

What Can We Do?

Farm Share CSA box

Photo: Jasmine Sahin/shutterstock.com

Because 99% of our food comes from industrialized agriculture, many of the foods we eat contribute to these cruel industries. By choosing a diet free of animal products, known as a vegan or plant-based diet, we can help alleviate the amount of harm inflicted on workers and communities by animal farms and slaughterhouses. Check out our plant-based eating guide at the link below.

Purchasing organic produce can also help reduce the amount of chemicals produce workers come in contact with. When possible, buy produce from local farmers at markets or through community-supported agriculture (CSAs).

Never doubt your potential—meaningful acts at a small scale can spark groups of people to make change in the world! Check out Food Empowerment Project for ways to support farmworkers and learn more about these industries.

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