We should know where our turkeys come from, and who processes them for us.
The turkeys piled into supermarket freezers carry their own stories. Raised primarily in massive confinement buildings by low-paid growers under contract to corporate food giants, they are genetically designed for plentiful breast meat to grace our Thanksgiving platters. They are then trucked to a processing plant, where they meet their demise.
Reflecting the racial structure of the nation’s entire food system, turkey processing relies largely on the hard labor of low-wage workers of color. On plant floors across the country, a predominantly black, Latino and Asian work force kills, guts, cleans, processes and packages the Thanksgiving centerpiece along fast-moving production lines.
Injuries are commonplace. Thousands of individual repetitive motions every shift raise the probability of chronic pain for line workers.
Federal safety inspectors are spread thin, and when they do arrive it is not unusual for supervisors to silence workers. At a recent meeting of Somali immigrants with an Occupational Safety and Health Administration representative, workers were shocked to learn that they had the right to speak when an inspector came to their workplace.
Every day of the year, and especially on Thanksgiving, no one in this country eats without the labor of immigrants, refugees and other workers of color. This is not a new reality.
When President Theodore Roosevelt pushed his “cheap food” policy in order to feed a growing and politically volatile urban population a century ago, the cost was imposed on both family farmers and food sector workers. A cheap food system is fundamentally based on low commodity prices and low-wage workers, and little has changed since Roosevelt’s policy came into play.
This Thanksgiving, we should give thanks to the low-wage workers, many of them immigrant and refugee, who enable us to have our feast.
Thanksgiving turkey comes laden with human stories of struggle and hope and dangerous, hard work. With stories of immigrants and refugees still seeking an American dream. With stories from many countries blending to become one nation. With stories in many languages seeking to become one voice.
So let’s give thanks. Eat well. Celebrate. And seek justice for the workers who feed us.
David L. Ostendorf is executive director of the Chicago-based Center for New Community, a national organization dedicated to building community, justice, and equality nationwide (www.newcomm.org). He is a minister in the United Church of Christ. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.