by Roisin McLaren, SSP national co-spokesperson
· We’ve heard a lot about the dangers of chlorinated chicken. Chickens in America are kept in such cramped conditions that disease spreads very quickly, washing the chickens with chlorine after slaughtering them is the quick-fix solution to try and reduce some of that bacteria.
There is no reason to wash a chicken carcass with chlorine if that chicken has been reared properly, this practise is suggestive of the squalid conditions American chickens are kept in.
While this practise is disgusting, indicative of poor animal rights and potentially dangerous for consumers health, in the UK we have heard less about the racism embedded in the American poultry industry.
The US is the world’s largest poultry producer and the bulk of this industry is concentrated in the South, with Georgia being the main state.
The South was of course the heart of enslaved labour on the cotton plantations.
Cotton continued to dominate the region until the post-war period. During the Great Depression white landowning farmers began to diversify into poultry. Government agricultural programs subsidised cotton farmers to keep land idle and lay off farm labour to counter overproduction of cotton.
These displaced black farm labourers were ideal new recruits for the processing plants.
Today the US produces forty-two billion lbs of chicken per year and most of the workers who process that chicken are black. Poultry production is a dangerous job. Fast moving machinery can result in lose of fingers, limbs and even deaths.
The repetitiveness of the job leads to carpal tunnel syndrome and other musculoskeletal disorders.
The fastest production lines are linked with higher rates of injuries. Yet the industry continually pushes for production line speedups.
In 2017 the National Chicken Council petitioned to increase the allowable maximum number of birds slaughtered per minute to rise from 140 to 175 or, even better they argue, to remove the cap altogether. Thanks to organised protests from animal rights and worker organisations the petition was not enacted.
Alongside the mostly black female workforce are thousands of mostly black prisoners. In Alabama alone incarcerated labour accounts for more than 1,000 prisoners working in poultry plants.
These work release schemes are a good deal for the chicken companies and the state.
The plants get highly vulnerable workers who cannot organise to improve their conditions and are motivated to keep quiet about unsafe working conditions for fear of jeopardising their release. The Southern Poverty Law Centre investigated safety of prisoners in the poultry industry and found 24 incidents of injury at poultry plants since 2015. Incarcerated workers were cut by knives and received chemical burns on their skins and eyes from the chlorine ‘washes’.
They concluded that poultry plants are among the most dangerous places to work in America.
Even after their release ex-prisoners are not freed from the poultry industry, which is one of the very few places that will hire those with a criminal record. From formal racial segregation in the past to criminalisation today, poultry is the only resort for black workers.
A dangerous, poorly paid, racially segregated industry, that makes use of incarcerated people for ‘free’ labour, situated on farms that were previously slave plantations, many of which are still owned by the same white families, that produces meat reared in cruel dirty conditions, meat that is germ ridden and dangerous for consumers.
It is a shocking coalesce of racism, sexism, animal abuse, environmental degradation and disregard for public health. And all of this just to turn a profit.
All about profit
Profit is the motivation that keeps the wheels of capitalism turning. It is what makes the system dynamic, but it is also a motivation that trumps all others. Any other motivation you might have for running a business counts for nothing if you can’t ‘stay afloat’.
This profit logic becomes all-consuming resulting in industries like poultry in the US that are so clearly contrary to the flourishing of human happiness that it is hard to believe they are allowed exist.
Yet the existence of such industries is the logical outcome of this capitalist economic system and the suffering of humanity in the form of racism, sexism and environmental destruction is the by-product.