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Pain at the Table

by Fr. John Rausch

     After one year lifting heavy stock and tearing open large cartons of cereal and paper products at the supermarket, Betty wears a brace on her right arm to lessen the constantly throbbing pain of tendinitis. Faced with few choices for employment in her small town, the fifty-something worker painfully holds onto her full-time job that pays health benefits. Her manager compassionately gives her lighter duty, but with reduced pay.

Two young Mexican women I interviewed in a restaurant away from their plant described the frenetic pace of chicken processing as 90 carcasses a minute whiz past their station. With one bathroom break per shift and a short lunch, they must keep up without complaining or get fired. Short term they face careless knife accidents; long term it’s repetitive-motion disabilities. To maintain their families, the slightly more than $6-an-hour wage forces workers to take a second job. Yet, the cumulative weariness of extra work makes them more vulnerable for an accident at the chicken plant.

We American consumers spend only 11% of our income to feed our families. The American food industry delivers substantial profits to stockholders and cheap food to consumers. In the middle the workers get squeezed.

Mother Jones magazine recently labeled meatpacking the most dangerous occupation in America. Citing the Bureau of Labor Statistics the magazine claims that in 1999 more than one-quarter of America’s 150,000 meatpacking workers suffered a job-related illness or injury. Additionally, the industry surpassed all others in serious injuries by registering five times the national average in lost workdays.

The profitability of meat processing correlates with the speed of the production line. The more carcasses processed per hour, the cheaper the unit cost. Faster equals cheaper, which means more profitable. But, faster can also mean more dangerous. The typical line speed of slaughterhouses 25 years ago moved 175 cattle per hour, while today some line speeds approach 400 cattle per hour. In a related industry, the line speed for processing chickens in 1979 was 70 birds per minute, whereas today the line brings 91 per minute. Workers under pressure standing side by side most frequently face the danger of an accidental laceration from a sharp knife. Other workers must negotiate wet slippery floors and watch for production’s unforgiving moving parts.

While advances in technology explain certain increases in line speed, social and economic factors explain the rest. Companies can keep a docile workforce by locating processing plants in small towns away from union strongholds, hiring immigrant workers and re-engineering the division of labor to eliminate the need for skilled butchers. What promises as profit for the company translates as danger for the worker.

Catholic social teaching squarely stands with the right of workers for a safe workplace. Company decision makers must put people before profits, safety before stockholders. Unfortunately, competition from the global economy can push even well intentioned executives into corner cutting with workers.

Getting a level playing field for workers begs two considerations. OSHA, the federal agency charged with worker safety together with its state counterparts, needs strengthening. Paring away inspectors for budgetary reasons charged with ensuring workplace safety represents phony economics. Society will ultimately inherit the disabled workers from corporate negligence.

Secondly, industry must mature socially and include worker associations and their safety committees as stakeholders. Like a form of social insurance, unions and other worker associations will more readily deliver a safe environment as a team player.

Bottom line: workers who produce, process, and retail our food should not suffer pain to set the table for their families and ours.

Fr. John Rausch, a Glenmary priest, teaches at the Appalachian Ministries Educational Resource Center, Berea, Ky.   His column appears monthly in many Catholic journals and in ours courtesy of the Friends of the Good News.  Join the Friends of the Good News and help spread the Gospel.

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