Out of Sight: The Labor Abuses Behind What We Eat

Source: Erik Loomis, Dissent Magazine, July 29, 2015

When you think of the globalized economy, you might not think of food. But capital mobility and the legal framework facilitating it have tremendously shaped the food system. It has transformed where and how our food is produced, who grows it, and how it affects the ecosystem. …. This Smithfield story tells us much about food’s role in the globalized economy. First, it shows that the food industry outsources production for the same reasons as other industries—to pollute and to exploit workers while minimizing resistance from empowered locals with labor and environmental organizations. The meat industry already locates its facilities in antiunion states such as North Carolina, and even politicians in more progressive states, like Maryland governor and Democratic candidate for president Martin O’Malley, oppose regulations demanded by citizens to keep their water clean because they fear that the meat industry will move to another state. If the regulations in all the states become too strict, NAFTA has opened up Mexico to American agribusiness. States compete with states and nations with nations in a race to the bottom. Ecosystems and workers suffer. ….

….. Public knowledge of working conditions and animal treatment is the food industry’s worst nightmare. This is the motivation behind a series of so-called ag-gag bills to criminalize undercover footage of industrial farming operations. Iowa, Utah, and Missouri have these laws, and Idaho joined them in February 2014. …..

….More than 80 percent of shrimp eaten in the United States comes from other nations, with Bangladesh, Vietnam, and China increasingly providing Americans with their inexpensive shellfish. Those governments do not enforce labor laws in fish-processing sites. …. On fishing boats, conditions are even worse. Labor brokers sell migrant workers from around Southeast Asia to the mackerel fishing industry until the immigrants pay off their debts. Fifty-nine percent of these workers have witnessed the murder of another worker. One ship owner killed all fourteen of his workers rather than pay them. Meanwhile, fish exports continue to grow in importance to the Thai economy. Thailand is now the third-leading exporter of fish in the world. The United States imported $2.5 billion in seafood from Thailand in 2012, including more than 20 percent of the nation’s mackerel and sardines.

The food products we buy in the middle aisles of the supermarket are even more obscured from their real costs than vegetables and meat. American companies have engaged in the same union busting, outsourcing, and subcontracting in processed food as in apparel or toys. These workers are subjected to the same problems of poisoning, poor conditions, and capital mobility as workers in every other industry…..