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The Meat Industry and Exploited Undocumented Labor

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Good piece here that implicates everyday consumers and their desire for cheap meat in the broader immigration issue and how it helps exploit the poorest workers we have.

Cheap meat is costly.

At the Southern Provision slaughterhouse in Bean Station, Tenn., in a recent early-morning U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement raid with helicopters, armed federal agents and road blocks, nearly 100 workers were rounded up, loaded into vans and taken to the National Guard Armory in nearby Morristown. Terrified families tried to find out whether their loved ones had been arrested. Civil rights advocates and religious groups moved in to help, then turned out to protest the forcible separation of mothers, fathers and children.

Theoretically, a public crackdown on undocumented workers, overwhelmingly Latino, sends a message that slows illegal immigration, but it is not that simple, and many people are hurt in the process. The plants go idle as communities dissolve into panicked chaos that ripples into towns sustained by worker spending power. For a time, employers will be more careful. Workers who avoid deportation will flee to other slaughterhouses, where managers are happy to hire willing people to do one of the United States’ most dangerous manufacturing jobs, in horrific conditions that drive a near-total worker turnover every year.

The cycle is familiar. Americans want cheap meat. That requires low wages. So plants hire undocumented workers. ICE raids the plants. Latino families cry. Schoolteachers are put in the untenable position of either supervising children after hours or sending them home, knowing their parents are missing. People are appalled by the human cost, momentarily. Then employers and workers become more sophisticated at evading detection and the cycle begins again.

At one time, labor unions made sure that workers were paid well and protected from injury. Then, beginning in the 1960s, meatpackers shut down the old unionized urban plants and moved into right-to-work rural states, breaking the backs of the unions. In the 1990s, the North American Free Trade Agreement helped propel thousands of Latinos — many undocumented — into meatpacking, lowering wages even further. Employers welcomed them. Undocumented workers were easier to control and much harder to unionize than U.S.-born workers. The speed of production lines increased. Injuries increased. Union representation decreased further, along with wages and working conditions.

In fact, the move to bust the meatpacking unions came out of an alliance between the Eisenhower administration and rural interests who wanted to undercut unions to ensure a low price of meat for consumers. They did this by moving the meatpacking plants out of cities like Chicago and into rural Iowa and Nebraska, where trucking companies and new players in the meatpacking industry could replace much of the legacy companies such as Hormel and Armour. But because our meat is incredibly inexpensive, no one is complaining about this. Except that this makes us responsible for the exploitation of undocumented laborers and the fact that their roundup and deportation only affects us if the cost of meat goes up.

Of course, the choice of an individual isn’t going to make much difference. A consumer movement isn’t going to improve conditions for these workers. What will improve it is a higher minimum wage, a humane immigration policy, and a real regulatory regime.

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