June 20, 2006


Of meat, Mexicans and social mobility (The Economist)

A hundred years ago, a sensational novel attacking the meatpacking industry prompted Congress to draft the first federal food-safety laws. The author of “The Jungle”, Upton Sinclair, was disappointed. He had hoped to persuade Americans to embrace socialism. For him, the important point was not that the slaughterhouses of Chicago were unsanitary, but that they were “the spirit of capitalism made flesh”—a system in which “a hundred human lives did not balance a penny of profit.” The book's central character, a Lithuanian named Jurgis Rudkus, had come to America believing that through hard work he could grasp the American Dream. But he found that “the whole country...was nothing but one gigantic lie.”

Rarely has a great novelist been so wrong about so much. No one now worries about the poverty of Lithuanian-Americans. But many still worry about the health of the American Dream. Can immigrants still work their way up from the bottom? Can they become American?

Many fear that, for the latest wave of mostly-unskilled immigrants from Latin America, the answer is no. Some fret that the newcomers are too ill-educated and culturally alien to prosper or assimilate. Others are convinced that immigrant workers are horribly exploited or trapped forever in low-wage jobs. Both worries are largely unfounded.

Consider Alberto Queiroz, who crept across the border 12 years ago. After a stuffy ride in the boot of a car, he found his first job in a Chinese-owned clothes factory in Los Angeles. Workers with papers were paid the minimum wage, he recalls. Having none, he had to make do with $2.50 an hour. Though unlawfully stingy, this was much better than he could have earned back home in Mexico.

After two years he moved to North Carolina, a state that was then just starting to become a magnet for Mexicans. He picked blueberries for $5 a box, earning nearly $100, tax free, for a 12-hour day. But this job lasted only two months, until the harvest ended. So he sought more stable employment, which he eventually found at America's largest hog slaughterhouse.

Smithfield Foods' plant at Tar Heel, North Carolina, turns some 32,000 pigs a day into hams and loins. Thanks to selective breeding and efficient, hygienic processing, American meat has grown steadily leaner, cheaper and safer, says Joe Luter, Smithfield's chairman. A hundred years ago, food ate up half of Americans' take-home pay; now it is only about a tenth, and no one gets trichinosis from Mr Luter's pork chops.

But is a slaughterhouse a nice place to work? Smithfield does not let journalists in, for reasons of “biosecurity”. Human Rights Watch, a watchdog from New York, issued a report in 2004 entitled “Blood, Sweat and Fear”, which accused American meat and poultry firms of “systematic human-rights violations”. Slaughterhouses are harsh and dangerous places to work, said the report, and illegal immigrants, who form a large chunk of the workforce, find it hard to defy abusive employers.

Mr Queiroz takes a more benign view. Yes, the work is hard. The line goes fast and you have to keep cutting till your hands are exhausted. And yes, it is sometimes dangerous. He says he once saw a co-worker lose a leg when he ducked under the disassembly line instead of walking round it. But many occupations are risky. Taxi-drivers are 34 times more likely to die on the job than meatpackers.

Mr Queiroz does not think Smithfield was a bad employer. Wages of more than $10 an hour enabled him to buy a house back in Mexico. Cutting up pigs was easier than picking blueberries, he says, because he did not have to toil under the sun all day. And when he had had enough, he quit and set up a taco stand with his brother. That was five years ago. Now he owns a Mexican restaurant. America, he says, is “the land of opportunity”.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 20, 2006 7:05 AM

Oh, goodie. Another policy which will be set by the cult of the victim using their favorite weapon, the anecdote.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at June 20, 2006 9:39 AM

Victims? Where are the victims? I see only the American dream.

As for the pigs: "American meat has grown steadily leaner":

Booooo, booooo, hissssssss, hissssss.

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at June 20, 2006 9:48 AM

Or Rafael, a line cook at the corporate center here. Very hard-working and well-liked by the customers. Just promoted to manager of another restaurant in the chain. Learning the business from the ground up with an eye toward owning his own restaurant one day.

Posted by: Rick T. at June 20, 2006 9:54 AM

Indeed, it's the nativists who claim to be victimized by this next generation of immigrants.

Posted by: oj at June 20, 2006 11:09 AM

Or Carlos, the El Salvadoran self-taught head of maintenance here at work who earns $20hr fixing hvac, refrigeration, electical and plumbing and works doing construction and auto repair projects on his days off. He started out 5 years ago making $7.50hr cleaning bathrooms. He also owns a home and has a wife plus 2 US born children.

Posted by: Patrick H at June 20, 2006 4:53 PM