Despite The Jungle, Fast Food Nation, Slaughterhouse Blues, and other detailed exposes of miserable working conditions in packinghouses and factory farms, the public is more concerned about the welfare of farmed animals than the welfare of those who turn them into meat for our tables. In a 2010 national survey by Context Marketing, 69 percent of those who responded said they would willingly pay more for “ethically produced” food. When asked what they meant by “ethical food,” 90 percent identified three main qualities: protects the environment, meets high quality and safety standards, and treats animals humanely. Working conditions and wages of food-chain workers were not among the criteria.
And yet, food-chain workers face hazardous working conditions, illegal company tactics to prevent union organizing, failure to report injuries, and termination of those who file claims, according to Human Rights Watch’s 2004 report Blood, Sweat, and Fear: Workers’ Rights in U.S. Meat and Poultry Plants. A 2012 report, The Hands that Feed Us, found that one-third of food chain workers—those who plant, harvest, process, pack, transport, prepare, serve, and sell food—suffer from food insecurity.
The meat and poultry industry is responding to public concerns for the welfare of farmed animals. If public outcry over the plight of meat and poultry workers were as loud as it has been over that of farm animals, companies would hear, and they would respond.
Don Stull is professor of anthropology at the University of Kansas and co-author of Slaughterhouse Blues: The Meat and Poultry Industry of North America. He is also treasurer of the Organization for Competitive Markets, whose mission is to work for transparent, fair, and truly competitive agricultural and food markets.