Life was tough for workers in the Chicago stockyards 100 years
ago. Many of the workers came from Eastern Europe and spoke little
to no English. They waited in long lines hoping to be chosen for
a few days work.
the factory, laborers were injured regularly in the hot, bloody
and greasy environment.
Back and shoulder injuries from heavy lifting and repetitive
movements were common.
Among workers who handled knives Sinclair wrote that, "You
could scarcely find a person who had the use of his thumb."
Other workers were burnt and blinded by exposure to dangerous
The meat factories also were unsanitary and infested with rats.
Before dying, poisoned rats would often climb into piles of meat,
where they would end up in food sold to people, according to Sinclair's
Sinclair's further graphic details of the slaughter of diseased
animals, chemicals used to cover the smell of spoiled meat, and
worker's using the workspace as a bathroom all led to public outrage.
The book had a dramatic effect on the food industry: Domestic
and foreign purchases of American meat fell by half and people
began to clamor for government action.
months after "The Jungle" was published, Congress passed
the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906.
These laws effectively created the Food and Drug Administration.
While the FDA continues to set and enforce standards for food
production today, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is now in
charge of inspecting slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants.
While it took less than a year to improve food safety, better
working conditions took another 15 years.
When meat workers formed unions in the 1920s they were able to
collectively bargain with company owners on bettering their working
Still the most dangerous industrial job in the country, by the
early 1980s meat workers' wages were up to $18 an hour, the highest
paid for industrial work in the United States.
Extensive health benefits and retirement plans helped make the
work more acceptable.
by the mid-1980s, meatpacking companies relocated their plants
from urban areas like Chicago to new state-of-the-art facilities
in rural locales like North Carolina, Kansas and western Nebraska,
where they were able to reduce costs.
Today the meatpacking workforce is largely made up of immigrants
from Latin America. Charlie LeDuff, a reporter for The New York
Times, says that these workers, many undocumented or illegal,
are often the only people willing to work this job.
And because they're illegal they are reluctant to unionize, afraid
they'll be deported.
"For their part, many of the Mexicans ... fear that a union
would place their illegal status under scrutiny and force them
out," reported LeDuff, who went undercover as a meat worker
in a pork plant in North Carolina.
Wages have fallen to between $8 to $12 an hour.
Last year, Human Rights Watch, a nonprofit organization looking
to draw attention to human rights violations worldwide, issued
a report criticizing the industry for increasing production at
the cost of workers' health.
with fast-moving conveyor belts, employees must make hurried and
repeated movements that make them susceptible "to constant,
foreseeable and preventable risk of injury," according to
Lance Compa, author of the report.
Many of the workers' injuries are not reported.
"Workers are under constant pressure from managers and supervisors
not to report injuries (many managers get pay bonuses for low
reporting rates), and fear losing their jobs if they report injuries.
Immigrant workers especially are vulnerable to pressure not to
file such reports," Compa said in an editorial, co-written
with Jamie Fellner, that was published in the Washington Post.
What Would Sinclair Think?
The American Meat Institute, which was founded in 1906, dismisses
the claims in the report, saying "wages are competitive (about
$25,000 a year), turnover is wildly exaggerated, and safety has
Patrick Boyle, the institute's president, said in the last 15
years, the plants have invested in more power tools and better-designed
"It's a new world," he told the Associated Press. "If
Upton Sinclair walked through our plants today, he'd say he was
a successful reformer."
Others say even with better conditions, the meatpacking industry
falls short when compared to progress made at other workplaces.
"It's a new 'Jungle,' measured not against the standard
of yesterday, but the standard of today," said Lourdes Gouveia,
director of the Office for Latino/Latin American Studies at the
University of Nebraska at Omaha, according to the AP.