Out of Sight: The Labor Abuses Behind What We Eat

Out of Sight: The Labor Abuses Behind What We Eat

The food industry outsources production for the same reasons as other industries—to pollute and to exploit workers while minimizing resistance from locals and labor.

Shrimp processing plant, Can Tho province, Vietnam, 2007 (ILO / Flickr)

When you think of the globalized economy, you might not think of food. But capital mobility and the legal framework facilitating it have tremendously shaped the food system. It has transformed where and how our food is produced, who grows it, and how it affects the ecosystem.

NAFTA’s agricultural provisions allowed American farmers to dump their products on the Mexican market while raising animals fed on cheap American corn. This transformed Mexico. Mexican pig farmers went out of business because pork prices dropped so low. In 1995 Mexico imported 30,000 tons of pork from the United States, and in 2010 it imported 811,000 tons. Mexican hog farmers had to leave their farms to make a living. Some migrated north, becoming undocumented immigrants in the United States. A group of those people found work in a Smithfield Foods processing plant in North Carolina. Smithfield used these immigrants to bust a union-organizing campaign in the plant. When some of those immigrants in turn joined the union, Smithfield called the Immigration and Naturalization Service to report itself for immigration violations.

One morning, twenty-one workers were individually called to their supervisor’s office, arrested, imprisoned for using false social security cards, and then deported. Hundreds of other workers fled town, fearing they would be deported next. For Smithfield executives, the fines for hiring undocumented workers were the price of a union-free workplace. This actually backfired on Smithfield because the company had to replace those workers with union-supporting African Americans, and the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, the nation’s largest food worker union, won an election there in 2008. But Smithfield’s strategy often does work. An Iowa slaughterhouse turned itself in for immigration violations in 2008 in a similar attempt to disrupt union organizing. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials entered the plant and arrested 389 of its 970 workers. This time, the union drive stalled.

Many of the Mexican workers in North Carolina came from the state of Veracruz, on the Gulf Coast. Those who stayed behind in Veracruz also found themselves fighting Smithfield. NAFTA rules facilitating land privatization allowed American agricultural companies to create U.S.-style agribusiness operations in Mexico. Smithfield built a pork-processing facility in Veracruz, and it treated the people who lived around that facility as poorly as the workers in North Carolina. The company buried dead pigs in unlined pits. When those pigs decomposed, they contaminated the local water supply. Local residents organized to stop Smithfield from expanding the new facility and won.

This Smithfield story tells us much about food’s role in the globalized economy. First, it shows that the food industry outsources production for the same reasons as other industries—to pollute and to exploit workers while minimizing resistance from empowered locals with labor and environmental organizations. The meat industry already locates its facilities in antiunion states such as North Carolina, and even politicians in more progressive states, like Maryland governor and Democratic candidate for president Martin O’Malley, oppose regulations demanded by citizens to keep their water clean because they fear that the meat industry will move to another state. If the regulations in all the states become too strict, NAFTA has opened up Mexico to American agribusiness. States compete with states and nations with nations in a race to the bottom. Ecosystems and workers suffer.

Corporations do not care about national borders so long as they can accomplish their objectives. Whether the slaughterhouse is in North Carolina or Veracruz, most of us never see where our food comes from. When it makes sense to invest in Mexico, agribusinesses do so. But they can also move to the vast Great Plains or the South, where environmental regulations are few and labor unions weak. As Timothy Pachirat writes in his powerful firsthand account of working in a Nebraska slaughterhouse, “Distance and concealment operate as mechanisms of power in modern society.” Hiding food production protects companies by concealing how the industry treats animals, what it dumps into the ecosystem, and how it treats workers. Today’s consumers might eat organic food, but that does not mean the food is produced in a way that contributes to social justice. It does not mean that the people growing the food, butchering the meat, or serving you in the restaurant are treated humanely. Peeling off the food industry’s concealing blindfolds can empower consumers to again fight for labor and nature.


Public knowledge of working conditions and animal treatment is the food industry’s worst nightmare. This is the motivation behind a series of so-called ag-gag bills to criminalize undercover footage of industrial farming operations. Iowa, Utah, and Missouri have these laws, and Idaho joined them in February 2014. In Idaho, it is now illegal for anyone not employed by the farm—and for anyone who misrepresented themselves to get hired—to make video recordings of what happens on that farm without the express consent of the owner. Violators could receive a year in prison and a $5,000 fine. Agribusiness pushed for the law after an undercover video showed workers beating and sexually abusing cattle at an Idaho dairy operation. Animal rights groups are challenging on constitutional grounds, but it is a dangerous advance in the concealment of industrial activity. If laws protect what happens in meat factories from view, why would they not give all factory owners legal standing for concealment? Why not make the documentation of violations of workers’ rights or the dumping of pollution in any industry a crime? Although court challenges will result, if these laws are held up, they are a very scary legal aid to corporations concealing their operations.

We once knew more about who raised our meat and how it was processed. Until after the Civil War, most Americans lived on farms or in small towns. Food production was largely local, supplemented by larger national and international markets for foods like sugar and coffee. Meat was especially local. People wanted to see the meat they bought, particularly their beef. Given that fresh beef goes bad quickly, consumers did not trust anything that was not butchered locally. Until the late nineteenth century, people raised their own animals, bought meat from nearby farmers, or went to butchers who knew where the animal came from. Even big cities like Boston and New York had slaughterhouses to provide freshly slaughtered beef.

When American cities exploded in size after 1880, local food production became harder. A city of a million people could not easily grow its own food or slaughter its own meat. The advent of refrigerated railcars in the 1880s turned meat into an industrial product and played a major role in separating the production of food from everyday lives. Refrigeration meant that meatpackers could precut beef and send it across the country without concern about spoilage. To overcome people’s concerns about its quality, the companies took a loss in selling their meat, undermining local butchers and creating new markets for cheap meat that would generate profit after the smaller competitors shut down. Millions of cows that grazed on the Great Plains rode trains to Chicago where they went into huge stockyard pens. They were killed in enormous slaughterhouses, processed into a variety of products, and then shipped by train to consumers across the country. By the early twentieth century, beef was not from a cow but from a package you bought at a local market. Once Americans became used to refrigerated or canned beef, they assumed it was good meat. That assumption was often mistaken.

Beef processing facilities in Chicago, 1900 (Library of Congress)

The gargantuan meatpacking district of Chicago achieved fame and became an international tourist attraction. But, as Upton Sinclair described in his famous 1906 novel The Jungle, these factories created treacherous work conditions and nasty food. Slaughterhouse workers stood on floors soaked in blood and water in very cold temperatures, with flying hooks and knives risking their limbs and lives every second. They began forming unions in the 1890s to improve their lives, but it was not until the creation of the CIO-affiliated Packinghouse Workers Organizing Committee (later the United Packinghouse Workers of America or UPWA) in 1937 that they achieved major gains in pay and working conditions. Organized labor increasingly played a big role throughout the nation’s food economy after the 1930s. UPWA members cut beef in Chicago. The milkmen delivering glass jars of fresh milk to doorsteps were Teamsters. By the 1960s, unionized meat cutters made 28 percent more money than average workers made for nondurable manufacturing.

While meatpackers came to terms with the unions, unionization and good wages were bad outcomes for trucking companies, grocery store chains, and the Republican Party. A 1955 union contract won by the meatpacker unions that put a collective $50 million in workers’ pockets begins the recent history of capital mobility in meat production. This contract frustrated Eisenhower administration officials, who faced heat over high beef prices. Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson and his undersecretary Earl Butz, who later created the modern farm subsidy system while Secretary of Agriculture under Richard Nixon, wanted to raise farm profits without increasing consumer costs. Their answer was to undermine unions and squeeze wages by moving meat production out of the cities and into nonunion plants in the countryside, near where the cows and pigs were farmed.

New upstart meatpackers, with the support of trucking and grocery chains who profited from cheaper meat, introduced refrigerated trucks that allowed meat processing in union-free rural areas. This undermined the big Chicago packinghouses and their unions. The new rural corporations had ruthless antiunion mentalities. Iowa Beef Packers (IBP) became a leading meatpacker in the 1960s. Today part of Tyson Foods, IBP rapidly consolidated the rural meatpacking operations in the Midwest, built enormous feedlot operations on the Great Plains, and created nonunion workplaces with low wages. In 1969, IBP workers in Dakota City, Iowa, went on strike. IBP hired scabs to replace them. Violence broke out on both sides and one person was killed. When unionized butchers in New York City refused to sell IBP beef, the company made a deal with the Mafia to break the boycott, undermining the strike. IBP wages were soon 50 percent lower than in the Chicago plants. The big meatpackers could not compete, closed their unionized slaughterhouses, laid off twelve thousand workers, and moved their operations to the Plains as well. Further IBP hard-line antiunion strategies led to the rapid weakening of the UPWA, which became the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) in 1979.

The new geography of meatpacking, with its decentralized production, low wages, and poor working conditions, meant that farm owners earned more money and consumers maintained low beef prices. Workers—never seen by consumers—were caught in the middle. Nonunion factories demanded vastly increased production from their workers. Fatigue, repetitive-motion injuries, serious accidents on the job, and high turnover followed. One IBP manager considered an average annual turnover rate of 96 percent at a plant “low,” showing how little the corporation cared to provide labor dignified enough conditions to keep workers on the job.

The companies might not have wanted unions, but many in the new rural workforce did. Poultry truck drivers joined the Teamsters in North Carolina. The UFCW had major successes organizing southern poultry factories during the 1980s. The largely African American workforce in these plants took major personal risks by unionizing to improve the low wages and unsafe working conditions. Companies responded by closing unionized factories and opening new nonunion plants nearby, intimidating new hires into signing union-decertification petitions, or declaring bankruptcy and reopening the plants without union contracts. They also began replacing African American workers with immigrants, often undocumented, from Mexico and Central America. An Immigration and Naturalization Service investigation in 1991 led to accusations that Tyson Foods paid smugglers to bring employees up to their plants from Mexico and Guatemala. Most unionized plants faded in the face of this determined antiunion effort.

With union-free workplaces and undocumented workers, employers created an exploitative system of labor in the Plains states that looked more like the outsourced maquiladoras of Mexico than the unionized shops of Chicago. In 2005, Human Rights Watch released a report saying the American meat industry violated basic human and worker rights because of the terrible workplace safety, violations of freedom of association, and exploitation of undocumented immigrants. A decade later, little has changed. Meatpacking is a dangerous, nonunion, polluting industry that fights worker organizing through hiring, intimidating, and firing vulnerable workers, and it avoids pollution standards through threats to move operations.

Conditions are arguably even worse in the international fish industry. At Walmart, you can buy inexpensive bags of frozen crawfish and shrimp. As with clothing subcontractors, Walmart signs contracts with suppliers that provide shellfish at low cost. And as in the apparel industry, Walmart’s pressure for low prices means seafood suppliers squeeze every cent out of labor. In 2012, the Worker Rights Consortium issued a report excoriating Walmart for contracting with C.J.’s Seafood, a crawfish processer that brought guest workers from Mexico to its Louisiana processing facility. C.J.’s forced them to work sixteen to twenty-four-hour shifts and locked them in the plant. Workers were threatened with deportation if they complained. Despite these threats, a worker named Ana Rosa Diaz, who had left her four children at home in Tamaulipas, Mexico, to find work, called the National Guestworker Alliance and reported the conditions. This started a series of investigations, including by the U.S. Department of Labor. Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, said, “The extreme lengths of the shifts people were required to work, the employer’s brazenness in violating wage laws, the extent of the psychological abuse the workers faced and the threats of violence against their families—that combination made it one of the most egregious workplaces we’ve examined, whether here or overseas.” This pressure and bad publicity led Walmart to suspend the contract, but not to change its own labor practices or take any responsibility for the manufacturing of its products.

States such as Louisiana promote themselves as “business friendly,” attracting corporations with the unstated promise that companies like C.J.’s can operate with little state interference. Increasingly, though, companies like Walmart want to avoid even the possible threat of a reduction in supply through regulations. Shellfish production has moved decisively overseas over the past two decades. More than 80 percent of shrimp eaten in the United States comes from other nations, with Bangladesh, Vietnam, and China increasingly providing Americans with their inexpensive shellfish. Those governments do not enforce labor laws in fish-processing sites. Immigrant workers in a shrimp factory in Thailand’s Songkhla Province that supplies Walmart went on strike in 2012. They struck over their filthy barracks and a reduced food allowance that left them starving. The Cambodian and Burmese workers cannot read Thai, are in debt to traffickers for their expenses in getting to Thailand, and have little recourse to improve their lives. Walmart originally claimed it had told the Songkhla supplier this behavior violated its labor codes, but it later denied ever having received products from that factory, despite overwhelming physical evidence to the contrary. Thai police fired gunshots in the air to break up the strikers, demonstrating that the government’s interest was in protecting the fish elite and foreign contracts, not ensuring basic human rights. The new government in Thailand, following the 2014 coup, is even worse in its contempt for workers and the poor.

USDA officials inspect a seafood processing operation at Tianbao in China, May 6, 2004 (USDA / Flickr)

On fishing boats, conditions are even worse. Labor brokers sell migrant workers from around Southeast Asia to the mackerel fishing industry until the immigrants pay off their debts. Fifty-nine percent of these workers have witnessed the murder of another worker. One ship owner killed all fourteen of his workers rather than pay them. Meanwhile, fish exports continue to grow in importance to the Thai economy. Thailand is now the third-leading exporter of fish in the world. The United States imported $2.5 billion in seafood from Thailand in 2012, including more than 20 percent of the nation’s mackerel and sardines.

The food products we buy in the middle aisles of the supermarket are even more obscured from their real costs than vegetables and meat. American companies have engaged in the same union busting, outsourcing, and subcontracting in processed food as in apparel or toys. These workers are subjected to the same problems of poisoning, poor conditions, and capital mobility as workers in every other industry. In 2013, Kellogg’s locked out its majority black workforce at a Memphis factory that makes Fruit Loops and Frosted Flakes in order to crush the union, Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union Local 252G. The company recently moved 58 million pounds of cereal production from Memphis to a new factory in Mexico where workers are required to live in company housing. It then hired a union-busting agency in Ohio to bring in scab laborers to Memphis. This one action is part of a larger move by Kellogg’s to eliminate most of its American factories and all of its unions. The company has recently closed union plants in Australia and Canada, shifting production to nonunion sites. In July 2014, a federal judge ordered an end to the lockout and the workers returned to the job, but the long-term outlook for the union members keeping their jobs does not look promising.


Here’s the thing about food: because it is so important to our lives and our health, it is one set of products where we can effectively resist the concealment of production. Eating is a profound, if everyday, experience that affects our health and our happiness. The explosive growth in farmers’ markets, concerns about genetically modified organisms, and fears of pesticides have challenged the industrial food complex, just not over its treatment of workers. Free-range chickens and cattle have become highly desirable and expensive products, both for taste and for health and safety concerns, but less so because of the workers injured and killed in the meatpacking plants.

We can see the current local food movement as a backlash against corporations’ efforts to hide their operations from us. We cannot control very much about our relationship to the larger economy. But regional food networks, with production ranging from rooftop gardens to large farms on the outskirts of cities, can bring a significant amount of food democracy back into cities while providing enormous environmental benefits compared to the current system. Eschewing monocultures for diversified food crops would cut down on the pesticides and herbicides needed, meaning less fertilizer, less pollution, and healthier rivers, lakes, and oceans as well as small farmers who could afford to live and farm without expensive chemicals.

But food movements also need to be justice movements and connect to bigger issues. If we are serious in thinking about a democratic food system, we have to support good working conditions throughout the food industry. It means we need to support farmworker and meatpacker unions. We have to end the tipped minimum wage and demand greater funding for OSHA and the FDA to inspect our food factories.

Ultimately, our food problems stem from the same lack of democracy that plagues our society. In our food system, animals are abused, workers die, waterways become polluted with animal waste, and wildlife dies. Yet most of us have no idea this is happening. If we can demand ethically produced food that allows consumers insight into food production, we can go far to reshape the world into a more just and sustainable place. Food corporations, from Monsanto to McDonald’s, hope this never happens.


Erik Loomis is an assistant professor of history at the University of Rhode Island. He blogs at Lawyers, Guns, and Money on labor and environmental issues past and present. Copyright © 2015 by Erik Loomis. This is an edited excerpt from Out of Sight: The Long and Disturbing Story of Corporations Outsourcing Catastrophe, published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.


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