Are factory farms “the new sweatshops?”

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Are factory farms “the new sweatshops?”

Well, not exactly, since that kind of implies that  “old” sweatshops no longer exist.  (Wouldn’t that be nice?)  That said, the point of this very informative article is no less valid.

A Human Rights Watch report from 2005 on the state of the meat industry in the US documented that slaughterhouse workers lose limbs, suffer from massive repetitive motion injuries and frequent lacerations, and sometimes die in horrendous accidents, often as a result of extreme production-speed demands and lax health and safety protocols…in the last decade the rate of illness and injuries for slaughterhouse workers was over twice as high as the national average, and the rate of illnesses alone was over 10 times the national average.

Please don’t let the fact that the study above was conducted in the United States fool you into thinking that things are better for workers on Canadian factory farms.  Just as animals on Canadian farms are treated as horribly as those in the U.S. (and sometimes worse, as some of our anti-cruelty laws are actually more lax), people working on Canadian farms are subject to the same abuse as Americans in what is, at its very heart, an inevitably exploitative industry.  With a few exceptions, nobody wants to work at a slaughterhouse, so the people who do end up there are usually in dire straits.  Most are desperately poor, many don’t speak English.  Others are undocumented immigrants.  Employers have no qualms whatsoever taking advantage of this.

As well as firing union supporters, Smithfield Foods created an internal security force with ‘special police agency’ under North Carolina law, which allows the force’s officers to wield police-like powers. The security force arrests union supporters, and patrols the factory with guns to keep workers in line.

The first time I learned about human rights violations at factory farms was in 2004 or so, while reading Virgil Butler’s blog, The Cyberactivist.  Virgil was a low-level employee who worked at Tyson Chicken for 5 years and began his activism by speaking out against the rampant abuse he and his fellow employees experienced.  He quickly expanded his circle of compassion to include the chickens he used to kill.

Here come the birds through the stunner into the killing machine. It’s time to get busy. You can expect to have to catch every 5th one or so, many that are not stunned. Remember, they come at you 182-186 per minute. There is blood everywhere, in the 3’x3’x20′ trough beneath the machine, on your face, your
neck, your arms, all down your apron. You are covered in it. Sometimes you have to wash off the clots of blood, without taking your eyes off the line lest one slip by, which they will…. (Inside the mind of a killer)

It was a remarkably dangerous decision: in rural Arkansas, where he lived, Tyson Chicken was king, and speaking out against the company meant violence and multiple death threats.  But Butler was a remarkably courageous and compassionate person, and he kept going.

Halfway across the room from the hanging belt, you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. Some of the accidents that have happened back there prove that. People run into other people and trip on stuff that they couldn’t see. There was a guy that walked across the floor once and stuck his toe in a 6.5′ tall exhaust fan. Now, I am sure he wouldn’t have done that if he could have seen the thing. Aren’t you? (Setting Things Straight on Inspections)

Literally whenever I have a chance to recommend The Cyberactivist, I do.  It’s that good.  I consider it one of the more valuable reads I’ve come across as an activist.  It’s also heartbreaking, though, and very graphic, so keep that in mind.  Butler spent five years in the belly of the beast, so to speak, and witnessed on multiple occasions the sort of hideous cruelty that most people can’t even conceive of.  Sadly, Virgil died in 2007, but he left behind a blog that United Poultry Concerns described as “a treasure house of testimony”.

Virgil and partner Laura Alexander.

Virgil Butler with his partner, Laura Alexander. (Photo: United Poultry Concerns)


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