Posted by Irresponsibility
Upton Sinclair’s masterwork The Jungle is essentially contemporary investigative journalism in period costume. It follows the misfortunes of a Lithuanian immigrant family as they are systematically cheated, exploited, and abused by the meatpacking industry. The grim expose didn’t have quite the impact Sinclair hoped for, however. Middle-America, with its penchant for “we’ll see what we want to” myopia made the whole thing about the meat – not the humans getting ground up by the industry.
I failed in my purpose… Sinclair wrote. I wished to frighten the country by a picture of what the industrial masters were doing to their victims; entirely by chance I had stumbled on another discovery…what they were doing to the meat supply
When the new immigrants arrive in The Jungle a local crone explains how the industry works:
Old Durham squeezed [the workers] tighter and tighter, speeding them up and grinding them to pieces, and sending for new ones. The Poles… had been driven to the wall by the Lithuanians, and now the Lithuanians were giving way to the Slovaks. Who there was poorer and more miserable than the Slovaks, Grandmother Majauszkiene had no idea, but the packers would find them
One-hundred-and-two years later, the LA Times reports: “Ads placed in immigrant newspapers across the country had drawn war refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos in the 1970s and from Croatia and Bosnia in the 1990s” – followed by Latinos, and most recently African war refugees from places like Sudan and Somalia. These immigrants face exactly the same exploitative working practices as did the Lithuanians a century ago. Four companies – IBP, ConAgra, Excel (owned by Cargill) and Farmland National Beef – control more than 85% of the US market and the system remains as Sinclair described it: desperate people are recruited to do extraordinarily dangerous, exhausting, repetitive work; they work until they collapse then a new, more miserable group is found to replace them.
Meatpacking remains the most dangerous job in America, according to the Department of Labour. Packers still force employees to work ever-faster, while freezing wages and discouraging unions. There is little evidence The Jungle even succeeded in making meat safer. In January 2010 one US company recalled 900,000 pounds of beef in an E. coli scare.
Unfortunately, people are still sucking industry propaganda, blinded by faith in the so-called ‘free market’. Sinclair knew the type:
Some poor devil who had worked in one shop for the last thirty years and had never been able to save a penny; who left home every morning at six o’clock, to go and tend a machine, and come back at night too tired to take his clothes off; who had never had a week’s vacation in his life, had never travelled, never had an adventure, never learned anything, never hoped anything – [yet] when you started to tell him about Socialism he would sniff and say, ‘I’m not interested in that – I’m an individualist!’
Working In The Shadows: A Year of Doing the Jobs Americans Won’t Do, By Gabriel Thompson,
Nation Books, 2009