Here at ILNI, we strongly believe in workers’ rights. We object to the exploitation of workers for profit. Our articles on fast fashion have placed a spotlight on the plight of workers placed in unsafe conditions by companies that pursue profit over worker safety. But, never did we imagine we would be writing about these issues in relation to workers in the world’s most developed nation. Yet, here we are, two months into a pandemic and we are already witnessing CEOs and a President choosing economic profit over human lives.
Perhaps ethical manufacturing seems a little less abstract now we are talking about American workers. This issue might feel more real to us now the workers we expect to go back into an unsafe meat packing plant are citizens of a developed, democratic nation.
We are in shock that an executive order of a President can force meat processing workers back to work in an unsafe environment. We cannot comprehend that the largest economy in the world can insist their people return to work without protection from a virus that has already killed thousands of their fellow citizens? In this executive order, the President points out that the closure of a single large beef processing facility will result in the loss of over 10 million individual servings of beef in a single day. Yet, his order does not mention the 5,000 meatpacking workers and 1,500 food processing workers who have tested positive for Covid-19, nor their 20 co-workers who have tragically died from this virus. Working in a meat processing plant was already one of the most dangerous jobs in the US before the pandemic hit. Now, these workers must choose between risking their lives to keep the meat industry profitable or losing their jobs, their benefits and their health insurance.
The most modern, developed nation with the biggest economy in the world has now valued the production of meat above the safety of the workers.
How did this happen? When did the quest for profit become more important than the lives of the workers?
It started to happen when we were apathetic to the plight of workers in developing nations. When we continued to buy products produced by companies who were content to put workers in unsafe working conditions to cut costs. This choice of profit over worker safety happened far away from our home nations, where we could quickly put it out of our minds. It continued to happen because we did not make brands pay an economic cost for their unethical decisions. We did not effectively boycott the brands or call out the CEOs. And, now the same calculations of profit over life are happening closer to home. So, will we finally start to get angry about it? As we should have done when it was happening to workers in developing nations.
Will we demand a change to the calculation that values profit above life? Will we get more serious about it now that we are talking about the safety of working-class American citizens?
Is this what it takes for us to finally understand that the quest for profit should never outweigh work safety, regardless of the location of the factory?
We can only answer these questions by our actions. As consumers, we can send a strong message of change; we value life above all, and will only buy from companies who feel the same. Only by the force of our collective purchasing choices can we ensure that companies will never again place profit before worker safety.
To be free, the workers must have choice. To have choice they must retain in their own hands the right to determine under what conditions they will work.SAMUEL GOMPERS, Founder of the American Federation of Labor 1886