The Overlooked Plight of Factory Farm Workers

In December, NBC News published a story on an undercover video of animal cruelty in a contract farm to Tyson Meats. If you haven't seen it already, I highly recommend watching it. If nothing else, this is one perspective of a frightening story and spectacularly succeeds in giving one a sense of the problem that we have on our hands.

The footage shows brutal and harsh treatment of pigs in a barn-like facility. The article offers a warning on the graphic nature of the video, brief summarizes the footage, and then goes on to quote an apology from Tyson, who promises to terminate its contract with that farm.

This resolution leaves us with a nice sense of closure, but frankly, the entire story alarms me. In telling this story, the video means to evoke a sense of outrage and disgust, and in that I think it succeeds spectacularly. But the disgust it raises is wholly directed towards the workers. We see scene after scene of workers performing acts of violence against pigs, with no sense of what the workers are trying to accomplish. The clips chosen are often ones in which they are shouting harshly, mostly in Spanish, with the screaming of pigs as a skin-crawling backdrop. A casual viewing of this video might lead one to believe that these are a crew of sociopathic and lazy low-lives who spend their entire workday skipping from one act of pointless violence to another. The viewer is invited to let flow all internal xenophobic urges. This video seems to suggest that somehow, if this factory were staffed by a different group of workers, all would be different.

But that telling misses out on so many important details. It misses the poor pay, long hours and frightening pace of the factory line. Workers in the meat industry make an average of $23,000 a year, work 10+ hours a day, are pushed so hard they often defecate in their pants to avoid slowing down and suffer a repetitive motion injury rate 30 times the national average.

It misses out on the harassment and abuse that workers face from superiors. Although the exact number is unknown, it is estimated that 38 percent of all factory farm workers are from outside the U.S. and have an undocumented status. Workers interviewed said superiors exploit their risk of deportation and unfamiliarity of the language to induce a constant fear, pushing longer hours and harsher conditions. Most women interviewed spoke of sexual harassment and assault that they suffered at the hands of superiors.

But perhaps the hardest part for this narrative to capture is the subordination workers face all throughout society. This video misses out on the constant structural discrimination that lower class workers face in getting their children education, receiving adequate health care and providing for old relatives who lack social security.

At some point, we need to take a step back and ask why the events in Tyson's video occurred. A massive statistical analysis found that after controlling for many variables including poverty and immigration, counties with slaughterhouses have four times the national average of violent arrest, with significantly higher rates of alcoholism, domestic abuse, child abuse and suicide. To me, the data seems clear: We can no longer afford to treat this case as an isolated incident, but rather as part of a dangerous trend.

The factory farms that supply our meat consumption fuel a vicious structure of worker exploitation. While their actions are not condonable, it is at least apparent that workers develop desensitization to killing in order to survive; the cruelty we see them exhibit towards the animals is an unfortunate but inevitable result of the structure of subordination that the workers are locked into. Without really addressing this issue, the undercover report risks and implies a fallacy that not only pits animal rights activists against lower class workers, but ignores the possibility that the entire structure of factory farming is inherently broken. Instead of working to organize and educate workers, the result of this video was to close a farm and cast some workers into unemployment. At best, it accomplishes nothing, since the roots of the problem are still in play. At worst, it's counterproductive, since Tyson is easily able to play this off as aberrance, and positive momentum is wasted.

This is not the first time I've seen this narrative play out, and I don't think it will be the last. The entire situation is incredibly complex and incredibly sad. However, I think that it is time for animal rights organizations to shift tactics. Waging wars against the symptoms of oppression will not result in change. Rather, education of all -- consumers of meat, workers of farm and supporters of organizations -- and a union of the cause of the workers with the cause of the animals is the only way forward if we wish to live in a kinder, more peaceful society.