The Face of Exploitation

If there’s one thing we all know about the food system, it’s that it is exploitative. Animals crowded into miserable conditions. Forced to produce eggs and milk at abnormal rates with the assistance of pharmaceuticals. Denied basic medical care and left to die when they are no longer useful. Traumatised. Abused. Tortured, in some cases.

We are reminded by the animal rights movement that much of our animal-based foods come from very ethically dubious sources. And this is absolutely true. Animal exploitation in the food system is horrific and widespread. And as we can see from the industry pushback on even basic attempts at reform, it is very entrenched. We are told that it would be too expensive to provide animals with basic dignity, decent living conditions, and compassion.

There’s a face notably missing in a lot of discussions about exploitation. It’s the human one.

The exploitation of farm workers in the United States is something I’ve discussed before, and I’ve also discussed how difficult it is to escape exploitative labour practices. Yet, it’s something that doesn’t get as much attention as animal exploitation, by and large, unless you happen to be moving in a circle where people care about farm workers’ rights. Not for nothing do most of the ad campaigns focusing on exploitation in the food industry involve animals, not people.

Sadly, no one seems interested in stripping to their underoos and marching around with a sign to bring attention to the human rights abuses in the farm industry. I don’t see people handing out free vegan food produced with ethical labour on street corners and exhorting people to taste the difference that comes with food made without exploitation. And I certainly don’t see people staging die-ins to protest the incredibly high rates of morbidity and mortality in farm workers. I do see people doing all of those things for farm animals.

I care about animals, a lot. For a long time, I considered myself a part of the animal rights movement, before feeling that there were so many problems with the movement that I felt uncomfortable identifying with it. I also care about humans, a lot, and I would like to know why it is that we can have sustained and focused dialogue, everywhere from the pages of the New York Times to the aisles of the grocery store, about animal rights and exploitation, and we can’t seem to have the same conversation about the people who are exploited to produce our food.

Most conversations I see in the mainstream media revolve around the tired and endless debate over whether undocumented immigrants are ‘stealing’ jobs that US citizens would otherwise take. Or they talk about raids on farms and agricultural processing communities where immigrants are swept up for deportation. I can’t think, offhand, of very many exposes of abusive labour practices on farms in the United States.

Practices like locking people up in sheds when the work day is done to keep them from escaping to report their abuse to the authorities. Confiscating identification papers. Telling people not to report or they will be instantly deported. Supervisors who rape farm workers and remind them not to tell anyone with the added threat of, you guessed it, deportation. People promised one type of employment and offered another. Farm workers housed in horrifically crowded and abusive conditions without toilets, adequate food, or access to medical care. The same conditions for battery hens are protested and several states have even passed laws about it. This treatment of human beings is ostensibly not legal, but is very rarely reported or discussed in the media.

Back when I was vegan, I read a story in Mother Jones about meatpacking workers. The story discussed the fact that most of them were undocumented, the hours were long, they were not paid a fair wage, and the risks of on the job injury were very high. I remember being horrified at the thought that employees were fined if they were injured on the line and it had to shut down. And I thought, smugly, that since I wasn’t eating meat, I wasn’t contributing to that, so I was better than the meat eaters around me.

Because I had no idea that agricultural slavery still exists in the United States. I didn’t realise that the food system behind vegetarian food supplies is just as twisted and fundamentally broken as the one behind animal food sources. I was just as complicit in exploitative practices like these, even though I wasn’t buying ground chuck at the grocery store.

I hear a lot of people saying that vegetarian and vegan food options are more ethical because they don’t involve exploitation, and that’s simply not true. The face of exploitation is human as well as animal. Less exploitation may be involved in the use of non-animal food sources[1. If you want to get technical, however, it should be noted that animal abuse and exploitation still occur in the production of non-animal foods. Animals are deprived of habitat by farming, poisoned to address concerns about crop depredation, plowed under in the fields, etc.] and that is a good thing, but it doesn’t make such food choices completely free of problems. I say this not to harsh on people who choose vegetarian and vegan diets, but to point out that the food system is really, really broken and we are all in this together.

As we fight for better treatment of farm animals, can we also fight for better treatment of farm workers?