Alan Guebert: Paltry fine proves what we truly value
A much-favored line often quoted by preachers and politicians rightly notes that “The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.”
Curiously, a famous American politician, former Vice President Hubert Humprey, and an even more famous attorney-turned-preacher, Mahatma Gandhi, are both credited as its originator.
It’s doubtful, however, that many in Big Meat ponder its authorship, let alone its admonition.
The latest evidence to highlight Big Meat’s low light is a mid-February case where, according to the Washington Post, a company named Packers Sanitation Services Inc. (PSSI) paid a $1.5 million fine after it “allegedly employed minors as young as 13 to use caustic chemicals to clean ‘razor-sharp saws,’ head splitters and other dangerous equipment at meatpacking facilities in eight states… in some cases for years.”
Take a moment to consider the full meaning of those words: 13-year-olds, caustic chemicals, razor-sharp saws, and something called “head splitters.”
Now contrast them to words like skateboards, video games, bussing tables, and high school sports–you know, some of the more common diversions “employing” teenagers.
The difference is stark, violent, and even brutal.
The absolute topper in this woeful tale is that some of the meatpackers using PSSI-hired contract cleaners “are operated by some of the country’s most powerful meat and poultry producers, including JBS Foods, Tyson and Cargill. Those companies were not charged or fined,” reported the Post Feb. 17.
It’s not that these Big Three (of meatpacking’s Big Four) aren’t profitable enough to have their own cleaning crews of trained professionals who are old enough to drive or at least shave once a week.
We know this because, in 2022, for example, Tyson Foods’ net profits totaled $3.3 billion on sales of $53.3 billion. The world’s biggest meatpacker, JBS, posted results for 2021 (its latest) that showed $20.5 billion net profit on $351 billion in sales. Privately-held Cargill doesn’t reveal profits but did report $165 billion in total sales for 2022.
And remember, none of these immensely profitable, global meatpackers were “charged or fined” by the U.S. Department of Labor in this case because none of the cleaners–baby-faced or bearded–were employed by JBS, Tyson, or Cargill.
Instead, all worked for PSSI, a Kieler, WI company that is “privately owned by Blackstone, one of the world’s largest private equity firms, and employs roughly 17,000 workers,” explained the Post.
Simply put, that means three of ag’s biggest, richest players are at least two steps removed from legal liability for “accidents” or injuries that occur while workers, some as young as 13, are cleaning and sanitizing their industrial slaughterhouses.
PSSI provides other benefits, too, according to its website. For example, the “vision” of company founders more than 50 years ago included PSSI “providing contract sanitation services using a non-unionized workforce.”
The website doesn’t say if that founding vision also included child labor.
Still, it may get a helping hand in that endeavor as at least two Midwestern states heavy with meatpacking presence, Iowa and Minnesota, are now considering laws that allow “exceptions to child labor regulations in their respective states due to the persisting labor shortage,” reported Business Insider Feb. 13.
Of the two legislative proposals, Iowa’s is particularly “abhorrent,” related a Feb. 12 Cedar Rapids (IA) Gazette editorial. The legislation “pushes for teenagers as young as 14-years-old to work in… jobs like mining, meatpacking, and logging… work longer shifts that last late into the evening… (and) what’s more… the company they worked for would be free from any civil liability or negligence.”
If that proposal becomes law, warned the former Successful Farming writer Cheryl Tevis in a Feb. 18 Substack post, all Iowans “would be complicit, along with our elected representatives and governor, if we look the other way… [while] putting our children in harm’s way.”
Exactly, but we continue to “look the other way;” we continue to give power to the already too powerful until, like now, all we have left to give is our most vulnerable, our children.
Shame on them, and shame on us.
The Farm and Food File is published weekly throughout the U.S. and Canada. Past columns, events and contact information are posted at www.farmandfoodfile.com.