It has happened at slaughterhouses run by Smithfield Foods, Swift and Agriprocessors. Now US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has swooped down on Southeastern Provision, a cattle slaughterhouse in Bean Station, TN. On April 5, with helicopters chopping above, 97 workers, mostly Hispanic, were detained––leaving a workforce of only three. Thirty-two of the detainees were released the same day, 54 were kept in detention and 10 were arrested for defying previous deportation orders.
While original reports stressed the immigration detentions, the raid was actually prompted by the slaughterhouse owners’ alleged withdrawal of millions to avoid paying payroll taxes and conducted along with the IRS. Owners owe at least $2.5 million in payroll taxes charge federal authorities.
Soon, however, it was uncovered that Southeastern Provision’s undocumented workers were handling harsh chemicals without proper eye protection and not paid extra for overtime. Some earned only six dollars an hour.
The April raid was reminiscent of the 2008 ICE on Agriprocessors, the nation’s largest kosher slaughterhouse, in Postville, IA, in which almost 400 undocumented workers were not just detained but arrested. Initial charges against owners and management included harboring illegal aliens, use of child labor, document fraud, identity theft, physical and sexual abuse of workers, unsafe working conditions, wage and hour violations, and shorting workers’ pay. Agriprocessors’ CEO was convicted of financial fraud and money laundering through a charity but Trump commuted his prison sentence last year.
In addition to alleged financial wrongdoing, both companies are polluters. In March, Southeastern Provision’s septic system failed, contaminating well water with E. coli bacteria. In 2006, Agriprocessors admitted to discharging untreated slaughterhouse wastewater into the Postville sewer system and agreed to pay $600,000.
While many defend the undocumented workers, few want to talk about the jobs they are defending that keep the US in cheap meat. Maiming and amputations are disturbingly common and seldom reported by workers who have no rights. A few years ago slaughterhouse workers developed autoimmune diseases from aerosolizing hog brains.
“It’s an industry that targets the most vulnerable group of workers and brings them in,” says former OSHA senior policy adviser Debbie Berkowitz. “When one group gets too powerful and stands up for their rights they figure out who’s even more vulnerable and move them in.”
Berkowitz is right. After its raid, Agriprocessors repopulated with Somalis, Sudanese, and Pacific Islanders and recruited workers at homeless shelters. Some slaughterhouses use prisoners on work-release. Tyson Foods was charged with operating an elaborate illegal worker smuggling scheme replete with fake social security cards.
The huge chicken processor Case Farms, who supplies Kentucky Fried Chicken, Taco Bell and the US government, reportedly exploited the Guatemalan civil war for workers. It recruited so many, in one village a slur at soccer games was he “couldn’t even grab the chickens at Case Farms.” Reports say Case housed the workers in cockroach-infested houses with no heat, furniture or blankets.
While it’s true that undocumented workers perform much of the US’s agriculture labor, slaughterhouse work is very different. No other industry involves such worker abuse, animal abuse, environmental abuse and, often, financial corruption to produce a product that is harmful to consumers, in the amounts our cheap meat economy allows.
While most people know red meat is linked to heart disease and many cancers, the saturated fat in chicken and turkey is linked to breast cancer, as well as Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and cognitive decline. Yet cheap prices keep these foods popular.
According to the book Meatonomics, if Big Meat did not offload its true costs onto society “a two-pound package of pork ribs would run $32.” The offloaded costs include degraded water systems, air, reduced property values near factory farms, higher taxes through government subsidies and higher health care costs from meat-related heart disease, obesity and more. And despite Big Meat’s public-borne subsidies, it exploits undocumented workers to squeeze out even more profit!
Yes, the situation in US slaughterhouses is egregious for workers, animals and the environment. But Americans bear some of the responsibility due to their own love of cheap meat.
An earlier version of this report appeared on Organic Consumers Association.