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The 21st Century Jungle

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Upton Sinclair wrote his 1906 famous book to expose the horrible lives of slaughterhouse workers. But, much to his disappointment, Americans focused upon the horrible meat they were ingesting and didn’t much care about the workers he described or the socialist politics he hoped to inspire. It’s not too different today. Eric Scholsser’s Fast Food Nation has some really fantastic material on the lives of meatpacking plant workers. But the attention that book achieved focused far more on the other problems with fast food, from its environmental impact to obesity. This is highly unfortunate and indicative of our indifference to lives behind the factory door. The workers preparing your meat live lives of great brutality. Most of the workers facing the greatest exploitation are people of color, often undocumented immigrants. And the new categories of employment related to long-term “temp” work and outsourcing make the problem far worse.

Gilberto Gonzalez, a 47-year-old Guatemalan immigrant who has been cleaning poultry plants in Alabama for 11 years, says smaller plants and sanitation contractors ask few questions of undocumented hires and accept virtually any supposed proof of employment eligibility. “They have a way of working it out to get people on,” he says. (“Gonzalez” is a pseudonym he provided for this article in order to speak openly about his experiences as an undocumented sanitation worker.)

He lives with three of his sons in a decaying mobile home just outside Albertville on northeastern Alabama’s Sand Mountain, famous for its snake-handling preachers. He sent for each son separately in recent years. Just teenagers when they came, the boys paid smugglers $10,000 apiece to spirit them along the 2,300-mile trek from Guatemala through Mexico, across the Rio Grande, and on to Alabama, the last leg in the back of 18-wheel trucks. They’re still mostly invisible. They work at night, stay inside during the day, use back roads to avoid police, and never open the door for anyone they don’t know. Once, the family huddled inside as Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents snooped around the trailer park and knocked on their door for several minutes. “We just prayed to God, and they finally left,” Gonzalez says.

He works now at a Tyson plant, an employee of a large cleaning contractor called QSI, owned by the Vincit Group of Chattanooga, Tenn. (QSI and Packers say they use the federal E-Verify system to confirm employment authorization.) The work is good, as these things go. He’s still haunted, though, by his previous job. For about 15 months, he and his oldest son, who is 22 and identifies himself as Miguel, worked sanitation at a small processing plant called Farm Fresh Foods LLC in Guntersville, Ala. The facility is typical of the makeshift warehouses that dot the back roads of chicken country, picking up deboning work and other butchering jobs from the big poultry producers. Most operate on thin margins—bad news for workers, particularly the undocumented, who are always the most vulnerable to abuse. Farm Fresh’s sanitation supervisor rode the cleaning crew without mercy, according to the Gonzalezes and other former colleagues, who filed a complaint with OSHA in 2016. They were forced to work at punishing speeds in ankle-deep water with floating fat and chicken guts. They were enclosed in poorly ventilated rooms with chlorinated cleaning products wafting in the air, severely limited in bathroom and water breaks. The chemical vapor caused heart-pounding insomnia, Miguel says. Several workers had to seek medical help. Workers who didn’t keep up the pace were moved to an extremely cold area of the plant as punishment.

After pushing the 20-man crew all night, the supervisor would make them play a devious game before going home, Gonzalez says. To prepare the facility for the morning shift, the cleaners had to distribute 80-pound crates of raw chicken on the cutting tables. There were more workers than crates, and anyone caught empty-handed faced possible suspension or firing. As a result, workers raced one another across the wet floor to get the heavy loads, causing injuries.

“When we complained, they only got meaner,” Gonzalez says. After the cleaners met with Farm Fresh’s management to discuss work conditions, the company suspended them and refused to issue their last paychecks. The Southern Poverty Law Center helped them file safety and whistleblower complaints with OSHA, which has an agreement with other federal agencies not to act against undocumented workers at job sites while complaints are pending. OSHA fined Farm Fresh $29,000 for having inadequate drains and failing to provide proper protective gear against contaminated water, chicken waste, and chemical solvents and vapors. The company settled with the workers separately. Farm Fresh did not respond to inquiries for comment for this story.

Gonzalez wants to stay in Alabama another year or two to finish paying off the family’s home in Guatemala, where his wife and youngest son still live. But he worries the decision won’t be his to make in an era of highly publicized ICE raids. “We just work and sleep and stay off the street,” he says. “What choice is there?”

In fact, the choice is ours. When we will hold these corporations accountable? When will we care about these workers in our consumer actions? When will we make the end of outsourcing and long-term temp work a central tenet in our economic program? When will we do what we can to look behind the factory door and take the needs of workers seriously? Precedent suggests we won’t.

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