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A Deadly Job

  En español

By Javier Sierra

If you have ever been in a slaughterhouse, you will understand that the name is also a warning, that with such a spectacle a little of our human spirit also dies. The conditions in too many of these chambers of horrors are a national disgrace.

And I am not only talking about the treatment the animals receive. This industry often treats its workers even worse. The carnage that slaughterhouse employees face is reprehensible. These facilities generate more injuries than any other industry and boast one of the most devastating environmental reputations in the United States.

And why should you pay attention to this scandalous situation? Human decency, on the one hand, and on the other, because 65% of this industry's workers are Hispanic. A typical example is Elena Cardona, an undocumented worker, whose real name I will keep secret for obvious reasons. Her amazing odyssey started four years ago in Honduras. She walked and hitched rides to get to the US border, where she arrived five months later.

"I left my five children with my mother in Honduras and came here to give them a future," she says.

That future began in Tar Heel, North Carolina, at a hog slaughterhouse belonging to Smithfield Foods. Her hell also started there.

"I used to work at least 10 hours a day, into the early morning hours. They give you only three minutes to go to the bathroom and hardly 10 to eat. And I used to work at a station for men not for a woman like me," Elena remembers. "They used to pay us $10.30 an hour, but they used to take advantage of us because we did not have work permits, and they always cheated us. Sometimes they used to pay us half of our wage."

"Once I got sick with pneumonia and they never allowed me to go to the clinic. It was horrible. They would treat us worse than hogs," she says.

Elena worked at the slaughterhouse for 20 months, until January of this year, when she injured her arm trying to lift a load too heavy for her. Her foreman told her not to come back until her armed was healed. Almost a year later, she is still "useless," living off the help of co-workers with the solidarity of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW). Elena, like thousands of undocumented workers in this industry, is a disposable resource.

These deplorable conditions cause an extremely high turnover rate, making experienced workers very rare. Only after 180 days on the job do employees get health insurance. Fear of management reprisals or of being turned over to the INS imposes a silence code and fosters impunity.

But this industry not only plays dirty with its employees. Every year, industrial animal farms generate 130 million tons of manure, the equivalent at some facilities to the waste produced by a large city. The difference is these plants do not process their waste, polluting the soil, water and air.

The government has documented cases where fumes have asphyxiated and killed farm workers after they entered pits used to store manure. In several instances, leakages of liquefied fecal mater to rivers and streams have killed millions of fish. Thousands of acres are sprayed every year with animal waste in order to foster evaporation, turning them into fetid, toxic dumps.

Criminal counts and fines plague this industry. A Sierra Club study concluded that approximately 50 corporations racked up more than 60 indictments, convictions or pleas in recent years. The counts included bribes, fraud, destroying records, animal cruelty and distribution of tainted meat.

The situation sounds irreconcilable, but there are solutions. We can do better. According to union executives, the UFCW is working to improve wages and working conditions in slaughterhouses. But in many cases the industry tries to prevent employees for forming or joining unions. The UFCW counters that workers should at least have free and fair elections to decide if they want a union.

In addition, as consumers we all can fight the environmental degradation caused by industrial animal farms. Buy meat produced by small firms or family farms that follow organic practices, which avoid cramped conditions, massive use of antibiotics and other abusive procedures that harm us all.

December is Human Rights Month. It's a good time to remember Elena Cardona's odyssey, her sacrifice, her courage. It is an outrage that she is treated like an animal.

Javier Sierra is a Sierra Club columnist. The Sierra Club is America's oldest, largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization.

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