Meatpacking workers have historically been exposed to some of the most dangerous work conditions, resulting in one of the highest injury rates of any occupation in the United States. Between the years 1980 and 1985 the injury rate was three-fold higher for meatpacking plant workers than for all other manufacturing industries (Occupational Safety and Health Administration [OSHA], 1988) and in 2000 the rate of work-related injury and illness for meatpacking workers was 24.7 per 100 employees, while the rate for all manufacturing industries combined was 9.0 (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2001).
The causes of these injuries and illnesses are numerous and can occasionally result in death (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2008). The recognized hazards (OSHA, 1988) include the following:
Handling live animals and stun guns
Proximity to unguarded machinery that cuts/tears apart a carcass
Handling knives in crowded work conditions
Exposure to ammonia and other chemicals
Falls due to the accumulation of slippery animal products on work surfaces
Back injuries from lifting carcasses
Repetitive motion injuries, such as carpal tunnel syndrome
Infectious diseases that result in debilitating illness
Many of these injuries are preventable through the use of engineering controls (OSHA, 1988). Suggested solutions include the use of wire mesh gloves and aprons to minimize cuts from knives, allowing ample time to clean up spills, installing non-slip flooring, installing and maintaining proper guards on machinery, proper ventilation, and the use of gloves and aprons to minimize exposure to infectious agents. In addition, probably the most effective safety measure is simply training workers how to operate equipment safely and maintain a safe work environment.
Human Rights Watch Recommendations
Human Rights Watch (2005, p. 3) examined the historical conditions that meatpacking workers have been exposed to over the past century. Although significant gains were realized after workers formed unions in the 1930's, including salaries that outpaced industry norms and lasted until the early 1980's, these gains have been wiped out, and even reversed to some extent, by wave after wave of industry consolidation over the past several decades. Human Rights Watch (2005) characterized the more recent industry trend as the importation of Third World working conditions into the United States.
In order to counter this trend towards inhumane working conditions in the meatpacking industry, Human Rights Watch (2005, p. 2) recommends the following:
State and Federal laws mandating slower production line speeds
Stronger sanctions for underreporting injuries
Enforcement of worker compensation claims
The right to engage in collective bargaining and the passage of anti-retaliation laws
U.S. labor laws should meet or exceed international human rights standards
The Ethics of Worker Safety
The use of a cost-benefit analysis when gauging how much a corporation should invest in worker safety measures is both essential and ethically insufficient, but the U.S. legal system is structured to compensate for this insufficiency. Assessing the cost of unsafe working conditions can help convince managers that promoting safe working conditions is not only the deontological 'right' thing to do, but from a utilitarian perspective can save the company money in the long run (Ersdal and Aven, 2008). The threat of numerous workers' compensation claims, lost productivity due to injury and organized protests against unsafe working conditions, high turnover, and lawsuits can force corporations into a cost-benefit analysis that favors worker safety. The combination of a functional legal system and collective bargaining can therefore help both workers and corporations achieve a balance that produces an overall good outcome. Such an outcome would satisfy both deontological and utilitarian ethical considerations.
What Went Wrong
Human Rights Watch argues that this balance has been undermined by both industry consolidation and the availability of an undocumented immigrant worker population. Industry consolidation gave corporations unprecedented power to cut the wages of meatpacking workers, from a high of 19% above the industry standard in 1970, to 24% below by 2002 (Human Rights Watch, 2005, p. 3). The result of these wage cuts were an exodus of American workers out of the meatpacking industry in search of better wages and working conditions, and an influx of immigrant workers too desperate to care. In effect, industry consolidation has led to the emergence of domestic 'sweatshops'.
An independent investigation into corporate practices in the poultry processing industry supports Human Rights Watch's conclusions (Stuesse, 2010). Two-thirds of the poultry production in the United States is handled by only a handful of corporations, including Tyson Foods. In 2001 Tyson was indicted on 36 federal charges of recruiting undocumented immigrant workers at their poultry processing plants, but despite witness testimony and an exodus of managers from Tyson, a jury acquitted the company of all charges.
Tyson Foods responded to the federal indictment by screening all workers for documentation in a number of poultry processing plants it operated in Mississippi (Stuesse, 2010). Workers willing to purchase illegal documents through a black market were allowed to continue working at the plants, but all others were subject to being fired. In the end, most of the workers that were fired happened to belong to the local poultry workers' union.
In Mississippi there is a large population of unemployed African-Americans that were ready to fill the now empty positions, which are citizens by birth and therefore pose no undocumented worker risk for Tyson. Interest in organizing among the African-American workers is low though, since many are young and hope to find a better job in the near future. The resulting high worker turnover rate tends to hurt organizing efforts more than corporate profits, thus helping to maintain a non-unionized workforce in Tyson's plants.
A Proposed Solution
With a high worker turnover rate and undocumented immigrants scared into keeping their mouths shut, meatpacking plant owners are under no pressure to maintain safe working conditions in their plants. Managers are free to exploit these conditions by speeding up production lines, ignoring numerous safety issues, discouraging injury reporting and worker's compensation claims, and interfering with efforts to organize. Given this reality, the Human Rights Watch list of recommended changes makes perfect sense, because it represents a petition for legislative change at the state and federal level that would force meatpacking plant owners to recognize and conform to international standards for workers' human rights.
Meatpacking Industry Ethics
Given the meatpacking industry response to the release of the Human Rights Watch report, which characterized the report as filled with "falsehoods and baseless claims" (Gonzalez, 2005), relying on the industry to police itself would probably be a waste of time. Corporate ethics in the meatpacking industry is therefore purely utilitarian, or concerned only with profit margins. If asked, the owners of meatpacking plants would probably argue that what is good for them is good for society because they provide an important service in the form of food and jobs. They might also argue that their ethics are deontological because their workers understand the safety issues endemic to the industry and have voluntarily chosen to accept these risks (Ersdal and Aven, 2008, p. 198).
Human Rights Watch and others (Stuesse, 2010) would probably argue convincingly that undocumented workers can't voluntarily choose to accept unsafe working conditions with the threat of job loss and deportation hanging over their heads, and that the meatpacking industry is simply exploiting their vulnerability to increase profits and prevent organizing efforts. Several United Nations treaties and agreements recognize how disproportionately vulnerable immigrant workers are by stating explicitly that the human rights of workers should be protected regardless of whether they have permission to work from the government (Human Rights Watch, 2005, p. 4). The recommendations for legislative change by Human Rights Watch therefore seem to accurately reflect current conditions in the meatpacking industry.
The safety issues in the meatpacking industry are well-known and solutions to minimize the risk of injury and illness exist (OSHA, 1988), but the…