It takes guts to fix our abusive illegal ag labor system

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Less than a month after the revelation that a Wisconsin-based contractor, Packers Sanitation Services, Inc. (or PSSI), had illegally hired at least 102 teenagers between ages 13 and 17 to clean some of the nation’s most profitable industrial meatpacking plants, one middle school child at the center of the story has, according to a March 3 Washington Post account, “watched her whole life unravel”:

–“First, she lost the job that burned and blistered her skin but paid her $19 per hour.”

–“Then the county judge sent her stepfather to jail for driving her to work each night, a violation of child labor laws.”

–“Her mother also faces jail time for securing the fake papers that got the child the job in the first place.”

–Meanwhile, PSSI, the company that hired her and other children, “has faced no criminal charges, despite evidence that it failed to take basic steps to verify the age of its young employees.” It did, however, “quickly resolve” any charges it faced by “paying a $1.5 million civil fine.”

That’s the hidden-in-plain-sight, all too common side of today’s global food system: it operates on the ragged edge of the law. Most giant meatpackers, despite their folksy corporate slogans and farm-friendly images, live on this edge.

For example, since 2020, two of the biggest, Tyson Foods and JBS, have paid nearly $800 million to settle either federal or civil suits for alleged labor and market violations.

Those costly settlements, however, haven’t hurt Big Meat’s ability to secure lucrative government contracts. Since 2017, JBS has been awarded nearly $500 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture — $400 million in meat contracts and $90 million under the Trump administration’s China trade aid.

This latest revelation about underage, illegal immigrant cleaning crews only spotlights meatpacking’s worst kept secret. Federal labor experts estimate that 73% of all U.S. agbiz employees are immigrants and that half are “undocumented,” or in the U.S. illegally.

As such, it’s likely that half — maybe more — of the food purchased by Americans is picked, packed, milked, slaughtered, boxed and/or delivered by undocumented, and sometimes, underage workers.

That’s one of the darker aspects of America’s “cheapest, safest food supply in the world” equation: Some of the biggest, richest ag companies anywhere often rely on powerless, illegal immigrant labor to do food’s dirty work because, as agbiz often claims, “No American will do it.”

If true, the biggest part of the cure lies in the near-total control Big AgBiz holds over wages, benefits, harsh and/or dangerous working conditions, harassment, bullying, poor training, favoritism and other worksite shortfalls.

This corrupt-at-its-core system continues because we — both agbiz and everyday Americans — personally benefit from the abuse of desperate immigrant workers seeking to remain in the U.S. to somehow earn enough money to pay off debts that brought them and family members to the Promised Land, America.

That’s exactly what happened to one of the middle-schoolers caught in the raid of the JBS Grand Island, NE beef plant.

Like most 13-year-olds, she wanted a job to buy “nice clothes and an iPhone 13” so she lied about her age and was hired by JBS’s cleaning contractor “to scour blood and beef fat from the slippery ‘kill floor,’ using high-pressure hoses, scalding water and industrial foams and acids…”

PCCI, the contractor; JBS, the plant owner; and Blackstone, the $100-billion private equity fund that owns PCCI, all denied hiring underage workers.

But clearly, they do, as proven by the 102 underage teenagers found cleaning slaughtering plants in eight states by U.S. Department of Labor in raids last October.

And so do we every time we buy a ribeye, pork loin, chicken breast, carrot, strawberry, head of lettuce or too-many-to-list other supermarket items that traveled a crooked, extra-legal path to our local meat case or grocery shelf.

Which 13-year-old child, mother, grandfather, sister, or son was abused, underpaid, threatened, hurt or fired so I could pay pennies less for that meat or vegetable?

If our politicians won’t fix this corrupt system, then our shame–and courage–should.

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Alan Guebert was raised on an 800-acre, 100-cow southern Illinois dairy farm. After graduation from the University of Illinois in 1980, he served as a writer and editor at Professional Farmers of America, Successful Farming magazine and Farm Journal magazine. His syndicated agricultural column, The Farm and Food File, began in June, 1993, and now appears weekly in more than 70 publications throughout the U.S. and Canada. He and spouse Catherine, a social worker, have two adult children. farmandfoodfile.com

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