Monday, August 24, 2015

Erik Loomis - Out of Sight: The Labor Abuses Behind What We Eat

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...

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