Industrialized agriculture depends on a ready source of cheap labor, and factory farms across the United States have a long history of exploiting immigrants to provide this need. The U.S. government has enacted many measures to support agribusiness, including programs to supply manual labor from other countries. In the 1940s, the Bracero Program, translated in Spanish as “one who works with their arms,” was created to supply foreign workers to U.S. farms. In the 1960s, it became the H-2A visa program, which remains in place today, amid contentious debates now taking place in Washington, D.C.
U.S. immigration policy and its connection to our industrialized food system is an evolving and unresolved topic, and was a key reason for the demise of the massive Farm Bill in the U.S. House of Representatives earlier this year as legislators pressed for votes on immigration policy. The Farm Bill comes up every five years and governs U.S. agriculture policy, directing billions of dollars in subsidies that have shaped our industrialized food system. While the Farm Bill doesn’t explicitly address immigration, it supports an agribusiness model that depends on cheap foreign labor. The president says he wants to reform the agricultural immigrant worker program, while members of Congress are weighing many divergent interests, including those of families who have been torn apart.
Agribusiness wants easy access to inexpensive foreign labor, while human rights and justice advocates are concerned about dangerous and abusive conditions that immigrants endure. Undercurrents of racism and systemic injustice permeate the field, although these biases usually exist subconsciously. On occasion, Donald Trump has made impudent remarks, which rather than raising awareness or opening a dialogue, have tended to affirm unconscious biases.
Whether legally sanctioned or not, inhumane labor practices are woven into the fabric of American agriculture, and represent a fundamental element of our mass-produced, cheap food system. Farm and slaughterhouse workers don’t have adequate legal protections, and they also experience illegal abuses that the media is starting to address.
In April, PBS’ Frontline aired a troubling story, “Trafficked in America,” exposing an underground operation to supply workers from Latin America to factory egg farms in the Midwest. People went into debt so family members, often teenagers, could travel to the U.S., believing they’d have a good job and opportunities. Instead, these immigrants were deceived, overworked and unable to escape their hardship, essentially held as indentured servants. This callous system wants to extract as much profit as possible, and it shows little or no regard for the dignity and welfare of exploited individuals. It lacks empathy for human and nonhuman animals alike.
Last year, The New Yorker published an expose about labor abuses in the chicken industry and explained how a poultry company “built its business by recruiting some of the world’s most vulnerable immigrants, who endure harsh and at times illegal conditions that few Americans would put up with.” It’s an apt description and a common strategy. Disempowered workers with limited access to resources are especially susceptible to exploitation, and profit-driven corporations are quick to take advantage. Economic priorities tend to trump ethical offenses. In recent months, there have been news reports about big rigs smuggling immigrants into the U.S., including a case in Texas involving dozens of people, 10 who died, being transported as cargo in a semi-trailer.
Besides enduring treacherous journeys to America’s farms and slaughterhouses, foreign workers are also subjected to atrocious working conditions, suffering in secret. After investigating conditions for agricultural workers, Oxfam America released a report that describes how poultry slaughterhouse workers were denied adequate bathroom breaks, stating: “Workers struggle to cope with this denial of a basic human need. They urinate and defecate while standing on the line; they wear diapers to work; they restrict intake of liquids and fluids to dangerous degrees; they endure pain and discomfort while they worry about their health and job security. And it’s not just their dignity that suffers: they are in danger of serious health problems.”
The way we produce food in the U.S. today, driven by the goal of maximizing profit, has led to numerous affronts to basic human decently, and these have tragically become the norm. The greed of intensive industrial agriculture bears most of the responsibility, but we are each involved as citizens and as consumers. Our elected officials should be challenged if they continue passing legislation that enables factory farms to operate so irresponsibility. We need to show up and vote in elections. We also need to consider how we vote with our dollars. Purchasing food from abusive businesses supports and enables them to continue with their despicable cruelties.
Each of us, every day, can make a difference by eschewing industrialized agriculture, and instead, purchasing food from more transparent and responsible businesses, such as those that operate at farmers’ markets and through community supported agriculture programs (CSAs). It might even be possible to grow some of our own food through community or urban gardens, or in yards or containers. Whatever the case, we should recognize and take responsibility for the impacts of our daily food choices, and try to live by the adage, “Think globally, act locally.”
Gene Baur is president and co-founder of Farm Sanctuary and a faculty member at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.