Back in 2009, when we at CIS published an investigative report on the labor-market effects of immigration enforcement at Swift meatpacking plants in Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Texas, Colorado, and Utah, we wrote about the disgraceful safety conditions at the plants, especially for the workers who are employed by sanitation companies that contract with Swift to do these difficult and dangerous jobs. The work is done on the graveyard shift, usually by young Latino men whose illegal status makes them willing to do it and afraid to complain, despite the poor pay, lousy conditions, and risk of injury.
Bloomberg Businessweek has published an outstanding piece of investigative reporting on conditions that will remind readers of the national disgrace described by Upton Sinclair over a century ago in his novel The Jungle. The expose by reporters Peter Waldman and Kartikay Mehrotra is titled "America's Worst Graveyard Shift Is Grinding Up Workers". It describes a national disgrace, a tolerance of degradation and denial of human dignity that should boil the blood of any American who believes that workers should not be brutalized and exploited in order to put food on our tables. The meat-processing companies are engaged in a relentless competition with each other that incentivizes cruelty to both workers and animals and demonstrates the intolerable effects of feckless or nonexistent regulation.
Here is one excerpt from Bloomberg's carefully reported and strongly written report on the plight of workers on the clean-up crews: "The sanitation companies ... assume the headaches and risk of staffing positions that only the destitute or desperate will take — very often undocumented immigrants. And they relieve the big producers, including household names such as Tyson and Pilgrim's Pride Corp., of responsibility for one of the most dangerous factory jobs in America."
Our Congress, prodded and plumped by meat-industry lobbyists, has long permitted a system of minimal accountability for the meat-processors. This fecklessness is part of a much broader panorama of an inhumane corporate race to the bottom that was described in Eric Schlosser's best-selling 2002 book Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal. Below is an excerpt that we included in our recently published book What Happened to Worksite Enforcement: A Cautionary Tale of Failed Immigration Reform, which is a narrative history of the implosion of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which promised to punish employers who knowingly hired unauthorized workers.
The industrialization of cattle-raising and meatpacking over the past two decades has completely altered how beef is produced. Responding to the demands of the fast food and supermarket chains, the meatpacking giants have cut costs by cutting wages. They have turned one of the nation's best-paying manufacturing jobs into one of the lowest-paying, created a migrant industrial workforce of poor immigrants, tolerated high injury rates, and spawned rural ghettos in the American heartland. Crime, poverty, drug abuse, and homelessness have lately taken root in towns where you'd least expect to find them. The effects of this new meatpacking regime have become as inescapable as the odors that drift from its feedlots, rendering plants, and pools of slaughterhouse waste.