The Exploitation of Factory Farms Doesn’t Stop at Animals
The ICE raids that targeted immigrant workers in Mississippi is the latest in a long history of bloody oppression
The air is cold, hovering at 40 degrees. The floors are slick with bodily fluids and cleaning chemicals. Poultry workers stand before a conveyor belt making swift cuts to keep up with the line speed that brings 140 chickens down the line each minute — two birds every second. The speed of production forces workers to repeat the same movement, separating flesh and bone from whole chickens, tens of thousands of times in a single shift.
On Wednesday, the speeding assembly lines at seven chicken processing plants in small towns across Mississippi came to a halt when US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents raided and arrested nearly 700 Latin American workers in what is considered to be the largest workplace raid to occur in a single state in US history. Plant operators at Koch Foods, Peco Foods, PH Foods, MP Foods, and Pearl River Foods, which are among the wealthiest incorporated meat producers in the US, cooperated with law enforcement agents who surrounded their facilities and blocked their employees from leaving.
News of the raids targeting Latin Americans swept through social media on Thursday, followed by public outrage. Protests against the raids continue to mount while donations are being collected by the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance and the Food Chain Workers Alliance emergency relief fund for the families who need financial assistance and legal council.
Vegan advocacy organizations and food media publications, however, remained mostly silent despite sharing deep ties to issues of immigrants rights, food justice and animal liberation. Vegans and labor activists share similar goals for incremental improvements at factory farms, like reduced line speeds and more sanitary conditions, but too often the protection of farmed animals has resulted in the criminalization of individual workers who make easy targets in cases of animal cruelty. Meanwhile, the industry remains unscathed, owners continue to accumulate power, and the larger system that oppresses immigrants, women of color, poor people, queer and trans people, and treats animals as disposable objects, goes unchanged.
“This will affect the economy,” Maria Isabel Ayala, a child care provider for employees at Koch Foods, told the Associated Press, as buses filled with employees bound in plastic handcuffs drove away from the factory parking lot in Morton, Mississippi. “Without them here, how will you get your chicken?” she asked.
In the US, chicken meat is cheap and abundant. It costs consumers a few dollars per pound and reaps nearly $50 billion each year for poultry companies. In the late 1920s, chickens were the first animals confined indoors, removed from their natural habitat of fresh air, grass and sunlight, in the beginning of modern factory farming. Towns like Morton have been dominated by poultry production ever since.
The cheap price of chickens is a reflection of their disposability and the devaluation of human life along the supply chain from farmers to slaughterhouse workers. Rich white men who run the industry have historically profited from state sanctioned racism and sexism by targeting the most marginalized populations of workers. Poultry workers earn poverty-level wages, averaging $26,430 per year. They are routinely denied bathroom breaks, endure chronic pain, and develop musculoskeletal disorders that lead to severe long-term medical problems. They are five times more likely to experience workplace illnesses, seven times more likely to develop carpal tunnel, and three times more likely to have a limb amputated than the national average.
According to a 2016 Oxfam report, “Women on the Line: A review of workplace gender issues in the US poultry industry,” the particular experience of women of color who work in the poultry industry is one of compounding marginalization based on race, ethnicity, gender and class. Dehumanization of women is commonplace in an industry built upon the objectification of female chicken bodies through genetic mutilation (to grow as much meat as possible), control of their reproductive functions (to produce as many eggs as possible), and a speedy death (to usher in profit as soon as possible).
Employees won a $3.75 million sexual harassment settlement last year in a lawsuit brought against Koch supervisors for sexual harassment and physical assault of female Hispanic workers and extortion of Hispanic employees who were forced to pay to use the bathroom, take leave, and request job transfers. Many of the plaintiffs are members of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which has helped mobilize community members and local religious leaders. The settlement is a small win amidst a larger battle against the poultry industry: nearly all of the processing plants where the raids took place are currently under federal investigation and are being sued by farmers, retailers, workers and animal rights activists in class-action and antitrust lawsuits on grounds of racial discrimination, animal cruelty, and corruption.
Ag-gag laws attempt to shield from public view the horrific conditions inside of poultry farms and slaughterhouses where chickens are kept. Undercover footage reveals birds, trapped by the thousands in massive filthy sheds, who are diseased and crippled under the weight of their own breasts. Sick hens lay next to rotting corpses. If they reach slaughter weight, chickens are hurled into crates and transported by trucks to processing facilities like those in Mississippi where they are dumped onto conveyor belts, hung upside down by their feet in metal shackles, and dragged through electrified water before their throats are slit by a whirring blade that, due to line speeds, misses many chickens who are scalded and defeathered while still fully conscious until being gutted.
In an industry where violence against animals is normalized, birds suffer unimaginably. Large-scale killing causes serious psychological distress for workers, too, whose occupational hazards are compounded with long histories of racial and sexual violence.
In small towns like Morton, the poultry company has a long-standing monopoly on the local economy that dates back to the Jim Crow era. In the 1960s, federal agricultural policies pushed local African Americans from the cotton fields to segregated chicken factories dominated by white women — which speaks to not only the racial divide of the poultry industry at the time but also its gendered workforce. White workers gained mobility through economic development and left the grisly work of slaughtering chickens for better-paying manufacturing jobs. Poultry plants began hiring Black women to do the same work that white women did but for less pay, and as mechanization and line speeds increased, their shifts grew longer and the work became more dangerous. By the 1970s, African American poultry workers formed the Mississippi Poultry Workers’ Union (MPWU) to bargain for better wages and safer conditions but, in many instances, a lack of solidarity from white workers during planned strikes cost them their jobs.
Instead of negotiating with unions, poultry owners began recruiting transnational labor from Miami, South Texas and Latin America, bringing thousands of immigrants to Mississippi with the promise of a better life, a strategic campaign they dubbed the Hispanic Project. “The typical immigrant worker in Mississippi poultry is undocumented, unfamiliar with workplace rights, and often supporting family members abroad,” writes Angela Stuesse, author of, Scratching Out a Living: Latinos, Race, and Work in the Deep South. According to Stuesse, it isn’t an accident that the population of Latinx workers in rural Mississippi rose by 1000 percent by the early 2000s but by design.
Today, with hundreds of the same population of people sitting in detainment, at risk of deportation, Koch unflinchingly announced that it is hosting a job fair to recruit new workers. And the cycle of labor exploitation continues just how capitalism intended. The current crisis of family separation, detention and deportation is deeply rooted in white supremacy and the hidden labor behind slaughterhouse doors. In the struggle for liberation across movements, solidarity belongs to both the chickens on the assembly line and the workers holding knives.