Near Slavery On Chicken Farms

You know I don’t like factory farming. In fact, that’s way too mild a way to say it. These factory farms are bad for animals, bad for food crops, bad for the environment, bad for farming, bad for America and just plain bad. The only good thing about them is they have kept food prices for consumers unnaturally low. And we have the Nixon administration’s Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz to thank for that and for making Americans fat. While the prices may be low, the quality is even lower. Those low prices have not reduced the level of poverty or hunger in this country.

Immigrants are particularly exploited by the factory farm system. According to the Farmers’ Legal Action Group, based in Milwaukee, refugees and their descendants from Southeast Asia who came here at the end of the Vietnam War, are being placed into poverty-stricken peasant status by deceptive corporate recruitment. These hard-working people have been lured from urban areas to rural Midwestern states to raise chickens for the big poultry companies, like Tyson. The would-be farmers were seeking the American Dream and the ability to work for themselves, be their own boss. But their lack of experience with our nation’s culture has fooled them into deals that sounded too good to be true.

The deal was that if they purchased the farms, the poultry companies would provide the birds, the feed and the market, all they had to supply was the labor. The new farmers were promised incomes of up to $100,000 a year. What these immigrants didn’t know was that they were entering a long-time fight between the poultry companies and the farmers who raise the birds. The contracts which seemed to promise a guaranteed income actually shifted all the expenses to the farmers and gave the big corporations all the profits. Each contract is only for one season or one year. The companies use the threat of not renewing the contract to get the new farmers to make changes and improvements to their chicken houses. Often the changes amount to micromanagement of the farm itself. Instead of working for themselves, these immigrants find they are contract employees with no steady paycheck and no benefits.

Further, if chickens get sick or are underweight, the farmers bare the price, often dropping their income drastically. Instead of the promised hundreds of thousands of dollars, most of these farmers are scraping by on less than $20,000 a year, poverty wages. The new farmers believed all they had to do was work hard and they would be paying off their farm loans and pursuing the American Dream. Instead, they find they are living in indentured servitude.

This is an illustration of how factory farming isn’t just bad for animals, it’s bad for farmers, too.