Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Cheap labor, cheap food, fat profits

Two recent reports highlight just how heavily the U.S. food system relies on cheap labor to maintain profitability.

Labor conditions have gotten so wretched in the meat and poultry-processing industry that Human Rights Watch was moved to issue a scathing report yesterday.

"In meat and poultry plants across the United States, Human Rights Watch found that many workers face a real danger of losing a limb, or even their lives, in unsafe work conditions. It also found that companies frequently deny workers’ compensation to employees injured on the job, intimidate and fire workers who try to organize, and exploit workers’ immigrant status in order to keep them quiet about abuses," the organization states in a press release announcing the study.

I haven't had a chance to look at the full report yet--my reading list is piling up--but the press release says its focuses on Tyson Foods Inc. and Smithfield Foods Inc, among others.

While these companies crack down on union activity and pinch pennies on shop-floor safety, their stocks have been doing fine for themselves in the stock market as Atkins-addled consumers load up on factory-produced meat. (The red line represents Smithfield, the blue Tyson, and the green the S&P 500, or the broader market. Read this post for more on how to read the stock market.)

Here's an article describing hog giant Smithfield's robust financial results for the last quarter.

The Human Rights Watch report highlights the industry's heavy reliance on illegal immigrant labor: "All the abuses described in this report—failure to prevent serious workplace injury and illness, denial of compensation to injured workers, interference with workers’ freedom of association—are directly linked to the vulnerable immigration status of most workers in the industry and the willingness of employers to take advantage of that vulnerability."

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Labor infuriated immigrant-advocacy groups Monday when it unceremoniously halted its annual study of working and living conditions among the nation's migrant farm workers. According to the AP article linked here: "The information is part of a survey that is the sole authority on the work and living conditions of farm workers in the United States. The National Agricultural Workers Study affects immigration and guest worker policies and influences government programs that help the workers and their families."

The article states that the number of illegal-immigrant farm workers rose from 7 percent of total farm workers in 1989 to 52 percent in 2000. This figure shows an astonishing reliance on vulnerable, low-wage labor for our food supply.

Cheap labor means industrial food giants can keep consumer food prices down while remaining highly profitable. Cheap food means downward pressure on inflation, which has been miraculously low for about the last ten years. Low inflation means low interest rates, which fuels stock-market rallies.

Every prosperous person in the US--from rightwingers fulminating about how wetbacks are destroying the country to NPR-listening Whole Foods shoppers to me--owes much of their comfort to the exploitation of immigrant labor. Take it away and you'd have to radically transform the food (and thus the economic) system on both sides of the border.

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