Ducking under

by Henry Farrell on June 16, 2006

The _Economist_ really should have gone elsewhere for this week’s “Horatio Alger story”:http://www.economist.com/world/na/displaystory.cfm?story_id=E1_SDGPQSN about undocumented immigrants making good in the American economy.

bq. Consider Alberto Queiroz, who crept across the border 12 years ago. … picked blueberries for $5 a box … this job lasted only two months …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. … Human Rights Watch, a watchdog from New York, issued a report in 2004 … 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.

“Bob Herbert”:http://spewingforth.blogspot.com/2006/06/where-workers-come-last.html, spirited across the _Times Select_ paywall by Jordan Barab, has a rather different tale to tell about the same plant.

bq. Workers are drawn there from all over the region, sometimes traveling in crowded vans for two hours or more each day, because the starting pay — until recently, $8 and change an hour — is higher than the pay at most other jobs available to them. But the work is often brutal beyond imagining. Company officials will tell you everything is fine, but serious injuries abound, and the company has used illegal and, at times, violent tactics over the course of a dozen years to keep the workers from joining a union … “The line do move fast,” the young man said, “and people do get hurt. You can hear ’em hollering when they’re on their way to the clinic.” Workers are cut by the flashing, slashing knives that slice the meat from the bones. They are hurt sliding and falling on floors and stairs that are slick with blood, guts and a variety of fluids. They suffer repetitive motion injuries. …

bq. The United Food and Commercial Workers Union has been trying to organize the plant since the mid-1990’s. Smithfield has responded with tactics that have ranged from the sleazy to the reprehensible. After an exhaustive investigation, a judge found that the company had threatened to shut down the entire plant if the workers dared to organize, and had warned Latino workers that immigration authorities would be alerted if they voted for a union. The union lost votes to organize the plant in 1994 and 1997, but the results of those elections were thrown out by the National Labor Relations Board after the judge found that Smithfield had prevented the union from holding fair elections. The judge said the company had engaged in myriad “egregious” violations of federal labor law, including threatening, intimidating and firing workers involved in the organizing effort, and beating up a worker “for engaging in union activities.” … A U.S. Court of Appeals ruling just last month referred to “the intense and widespread coercion prevalent at the Tar Heel facility.”

None of this gets any mention at all in the _Economist_, natch. Feelgood stories about illegal immigrants coming through blood (quite literally in this case), sweat and tears to eventual success, don’t generate quite the same glow about the American can-do economy when you know that their employer threatened to get ’em thrown out of the country if they voted to unionize. Note also the sly way in which the Economist minimizes meatpacking firms’ responsibility for workplace safety by peddling an anecdote which lays the blame for a serious accident on a careless worker rather than Smithfield Foods. The _Economist_ is continuing (and perhaps even accelerating) its downward trend.

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{ 43 comments }

1

harry b 06.16.06 at 8:58 pm

henry — I too find the Economist to be in pretty serious decline (the front half, not the back half which continues to be dead good). But I couldn’t document the decline at all — it is just impressionistic, and sometimes I suspect that some of it has to do with now knowing a good deal about one of the issues that they comment on a lot, rather ingorantly (I was blissfully inexpert on any policy matters 14 years ago when I started reading). Could it be that we are just ageing, geting used to the good bits, and being less forgiving about the bad bits?

2

Henry 06.16.06 at 9:44 pm

I think that it has declined substantially. I’ve never expected to agree with it much of the time, given my politics, which is fair enough – it’s a magazine with a very clear editorial slant that it makes no bones about, and lefties _aren’t_ going to agree with it a lot of the time. But the quality of argument seems to me to have gone down considerably in recent years, as has its willingness (as witnessed here) not only to engage in _suppressio veri_ but in _suggestio falsi_ too. That said, one of the high points of its coverage over the last few years has been a country I know pretty well, Italy, where I think the _Economist_ has done a very good job in keeping tabs on a complicated set of issues, as well as mobilizing opposition to Berlusconi (who’s really a very unpleasant and dangerous character).

3

eweininger 06.16.06 at 9:46 pm

One of the best pieces in the NYTimes “Race in America” series from some years back dealt with race relations in this meatpacking plant. It gives a very detailed account of conditions there.

4

derrida derider 06.16.06 at 11:00 pm

On workplace injury even the most rabid free-marketeer must see that there’s something wrong here. That company has no incentive to make the place safer because they can make someone else bear the cost.

You don’t need unionisation or regulation to fix that particular problem – just make them pay proper compensation and they would suddenly discover occupational health and safety is a Good Thing. Here in Australia there’s lots of pressure on State governments to make worker’s comp dud injured workers so as to keep employers’ costs down. This isn’t just unfair, it’s inefficient.

And, yes, this is a dishonest story because elsewhere in the same issue there’s a story which points out, correctly, that social and income mobility is rather lower in the US than in Old Europe. The Economist used to enrage me in the Thatcher years because I disagreed with it but couldn’t quite see why they were wrong; now it enrages me with its transparent dishonesty. And even the prose style has gone downhill since they decided to chase the American market.

5

Brandon Berg 06.17.06 at 1:28 am

Although you give me credence to Herbert’s account because it resonates more with your worldview, I don’t see that one is obviously more accurate than the other (at least as far as injuries go; I don’t see why I should care about the anti-union stuff). All Herbert says about the frequency and severity of injuries is that “serious injuries abound.” Maybe they really do, or maybe he’s using weasel words to play up that aspect as much as you accuse The Economist of playing it down. Without solid data, it’s hard to say.

Also, I’ve always wondered: Why do unions need to have elections? Why can’t the workers who want to unionize just do it?

Derrida Derider:Insofar as the workers have an accurate perception of the risks involved in working there, the company has an incentive to produce the efficient level of safety since additional safety measures should reduce the wages they’ll have to pay to attract workers.

Yes, that’s an idealized model, and you could argue that the workers don’t have an accurate perception of the risks involved, but I don’t see how management would be able to conceal from them the carnage Herbert suggests. I suspect that the cost/safety trade-offs being made by management are more or less in line with the preferences of the workers. If not, then it would be interesting to know the reason why.

6

bad Jim 06.17.06 at 2:19 am

I suspect that the cost/safety trade-offs being made by management are more or less in line with the preferences of the workers.

Were confirmation needed that we Americans have retrogressed about a hundred years, we’ve got it. Apparently, any situation, no matter how atrocious, is self-evidently justified by its continued existence. Who on earth would object to losing a limb if they were earning $8 an hour?

7

abb1 06.17.06 at 3:37 am

Yup. As long as the slaves don’t rise up and kill their masters – they’re obviously satisfied enough, so what’s the problem, what do I care?

And when they do rise up and kill their masters – they’re terrorists who need to be punished harshly, until they straighten up and become satisfied again.

8

G 06.17.06 at 4:27 am

> Social and income mobility is rather lower in the US than in Old Europe.

Is that compared to individual countries or compared to EU as a whole?

There is an interesting effect where equality is better in any individual EU country than the USA but worse in the EU as a whole. One would think it would be even worse in terms of mobility (if for no other reason than language!). Although I imagine at least due to ethnic homogeneity at a city level there would probably be more mobility.

9

Andrew 06.17.06 at 5:00 am

“Also, I’ve always wondered: Why do unions need to have elections? Why can’t the workers who want to unionize just do it?”

Yup. If the workers came to management and said, “Hi, we’ve formed a union,” then I’m sure the plant management would sit down with them all over a nice hot cup of tea or something and come up with a nice secure health and safety plan. Oh, and double their pay too. Why on earth hasn’t anyone thought of doing it already? Silly them.

In fact I’m sure that management is just waiting for the workers to do it actually, and there’s no need for legislation to compel them to actually recognise the workers’ opinion by holding silly elections or anything.

10

Brendan 06.17.06 at 6:10 am

‘Taxi-drivers are 34 times more likely to die on the job than meatpackers. ‘

Does anyone know anything about this fact (or factoid)? It sounds to me like complete bullshit (or at least, when expressed clearly, to be so hedged around with ‘ifs’ ‘ands’ and ‘buts’ as to be effectively meaningless) but does anyone know where it comes from? And what, if anything, it means?

11

eweininger 06.17.06 at 6:57 am

Link from #3, above, fixed.

It does give the Horatio Alger myth a new flavor if the main obstacle to be heroically overcome is employers’ indifference to workers’ life and limb.

12

abb1 06.17.06 at 7:05 am

Does anyone know anything about this fact (or factoid)?

I found this. It says:

“Taxi drivers are 60 times more likely than other workers to be murdered on the job,” Secretary Herman said. “We can’t control random violence, but better protection could save lives. I hope this information will spur drivers and their employers to take protective steps.”

I suspect the sentence in the Economist’s editorial should read: “Taxi-drivers are 34 times more likely to be murdered the job than meatpackers.” Which may be true, but irrelevant.

13

Brendan 06.17.06 at 7:41 am

‘“Taxi-drivers are 34 times more likely to be murdered the job than meatpackers’

Yeah, I thought it sounded like a lot of crap. If it was 2 or 3 times then I might have believed it, but 34? Give me a break.

14

harry b 06.17.06 at 7:50 am

Unions hold elections because federal law requires it; unionization is highly regulated. I suspect the law, which once acted as an assistance to unionisation, is now a barrier to it. That would explain why it isn’t being reformed, I guess.

If taxi drivers are 60 times more likely to be murdered on the job than other workers, they are probably not much more than 60 times more likely to die on the job, right? But then, if they’re only 34 times more likely than meatpackers, meatpackers are twice as likely as other workers to die on the job, and at much greater risk of being seriously injured, maimed, etc (I imagine).

15

Jane Galt 06.17.06 at 8:16 am

If you’d actually gone to the Bureau of Labour Statistics excellent section on workplace fatalities, you would have found that the total number of fatalities (not homicides)in the meatpacking industry averages about 20 a year, versus about 60 a year for taxi and limousine drivers. You would also have discovered, by looking at the annual non-fatal industry census, that there are over 500K people employed in meatpacking, versus a little over 60K working as taxi drivers. While I don’t know where the particular stat comes from, the BLS seems to be in rough agreement with it.

Of course, that’s no doubt because they’re part of the same vast right-wing conspiracy that is bringing down the Economist.

16

jayann 06.17.06 at 9:01 am

total number of fatalities (not homicides)in the meatpacking industry averages about 20 a year, versus about 60 a year for taxi and limousine drivers.

Irrelevant to the issue of the nature of the working environment at Smithfield. (I accept you aren’t the only person distracted by it.)

17

Henry 06.17.06 at 9:09 am

Megan (Jane Galt) – fair enough that you should want to defend your employer; it’s an understandable reaction. But I would like you to go back to the post and point out the place where I mentioned or even hinted at a ‘vast right wing conspiracy.’ And then, I’d suggest that you might want to address the actual charges that are on the table – of a substantial deterioration in intellectual quality and honesty by a specific magazine. Do you think it’s honest, in an article that’s supposed to be about the uplifting experience of undocumented immigrants, to fail to mention that the employer you’re talking about has been found to have threatened to report its workers to immigration authorities if they try to unionize? Or that more generally it has been found to be an abusive employer that repeatedly breaks the law? This isn’t a material or relevant fact? Come off it.

18

Don Quijote 06.17.06 at 9:42 am

Jane Galt,

Mother Jones – The Chain never stops.

Here is a nice article about the meat packing industry and how well they treat their employees.

Safety and Health Guide for the Meatpacking Industry

The meatpacking industry (Standard Industrial Classification 2011) , which employs over 1000,000 workers, is considered to be one of the most hazardous industries in the United States. according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) 1 this industry has had the highest injury rate of any industry in the country for five consecutive years (1980-1985) with a rate three times that of other manufacturing industries.

BLS studies have also shown that for 1985, 319 workers were injured during the first month of employment in the industry. Of those workers, 29 percent were cut by knives or machinery and 30 percent received sprains and strains. In addition, more than 30 percent of all injuries occurred to workers 25 years of age or younger. Younger new workers are at the highest occupational risk and suffer a significant proportion of all injuries.

Every thing that I can find thru Google leads me to believe that the Meat Packing Industry is one of the most dangerous places to work in.

While the BLS stats mentioned by OSHA are horrible and from the 1980 to 1985, I have no doubt that thanks to people of your ideological bent that they are worse today than they were twenty years ago.

19

abb1 06.17.06 at 9:58 am

Yeah, comparing the dangers of taxi-driving – murders and traffic accidents, things that have little or nothing to do with the employer – with industrial accident fatalities doesn’t seem to make much sense.

20

Barry 06.17.06 at 10:00 am

derrida derider: “On workplace injury even the most rabid free-marketeer must see that there’s something wrong here. That company has no incentive to make the place safer because they can make someone else bear the cost.”

Here I was, going to say that a rabid free marketer would think that making somebody else bear the cost is a *good* thing, but Brandon beats me to it by proving it.

The reason that sarcasm fails to get through on the net isn’t because of the limitations of writing, or of reading comprehension, but because so much sarcasm and satire on the net is indistinguishable from fervently held belief.

21

Brendan 06.17.06 at 10:31 am

Thinking about that statistic a bit more, the key point is, I suppose that driving (simply driving per se) has an inherent risk attached to it, especially the sort of driving done by taxi drivers (late at night, all conditions, sometimes ‘bad neighbourhoods’ etc.). It would be intersting to compare the fatalities incurred by taxi drivers (per hour driven, for example) simply as compared with the fatality rate of ordinary drivers (matched as much as possible for age and gender…don’t forget that taxi drivers (where I live) tend to be overwhelmingly male, and are therefore statistically more likely to have accidents than females). It may be that taxi drivers have a much higher accident/fatality rate. On the other hand, maybe not.

The key point, therefore, as always is: are you comparing like with like? There is an inherent risk to driving. Is there (or should there be) an inherent risk to working in a slaughterhouse? Surely a much more accurate comparison would be with someone who simply worked in an equivalent (as much as possible) blue collar job? (The steel industry for example).

Also: final point: where did you get the statistic that 500K people ‘work’ in meatpacking? 60K work as taxi drivers: i get what that means. They actually drive a taxi. But what does it mean to work in ‘meatpacking’? Does that include managers? Cleaners? People working in IT in the office? According to this statistic only 150,000 people actually work in a slaughterhouse which of course is what I was talking about.

‘According to statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor, nearly one in three slaughterhouse workers suffers from illness or injury, compared to one in 10 workers in other manufacturing jobs.’ (emphasis added).

Moreover, you are also assuming that the statistics provided are 100% accurate. The fatality (and for that matter injury) rate for taxi drivers is presumably fairly ‘objective’ and transparent: you are either pulled out of a taxi by emergency services or you arent.

But: ‘In order to keep insurance rates low and to avoid having to file reports with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), workers in slaughterhouses and factory farms are often pressured to hide injuries and continue working even if they’re in great pain.40 According to an investigative report by Reuters on the exploitation of meat industry workers, “Court documents show several of the largest companies kept two sets of injury records, one for themselves and one for the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.”41 A congressional report on OSHA violations in the farmed-animal industry found that animal-processing plants frequently failed to report “serious injuries such as fractures, concussions, major cuts, hernias, some requiring hospitalization, surgery, even amputation.”42 The Supreme Court of Iowa even noted that slaughterhouses often force badly injured workers to show up at the processing plant for a short period each day so that the plant does not have to report to OSHA lost workdays because of injuries. Some workers are even sent back to the line on the same day that they have a surgery or the day after an amputation as the result of a work-related injury.’

Moreover the article also goes on to note that many workers are simply fired before they can report their injuries.

http://www.goveg.com/workerRights_injured.asp

In short: even taking on board your point, upon further reflection, I still think the statistic is a crock of shit.

22

abb1 06.17.06 at 10:45 am

I heard meatpacking in N.Korea is positively brutal. But of course no one here is interested, as usual.

23

TJIT 06.17.06 at 11:03 am

The economist

“He says he once saw a co-worker lose a leg when he ducked under the disassembly line instead of walking round it.”

Henry

“Note also the sly way in which the Economist minimizes meatpacking firms’ responsibility for workplace safety by peddling an anecdote which lays the blame for a serious accident on a careless worker rather than Smithfield Foods.”

It looks to me like the economist was trying to illustrate that it can be a dangerous business. It was the workers anecdote not the economist’s. If they were really interested in minimizing the packer’s responsibility they could have just kept the anecdote out of the article.

24

Brendan 06.17.06 at 11:12 am

Incidentally, Jane, I notice you were highly selective in your quotes about taxi driver fatalities weren’t you? It’s true that in 2004 there were 59 fatalities. (http://www.bls.gov/iif/oshwc/cfoi/cftb0187.pdf).

But 47 of them were homicides. Only 11 were ‘incidents’: ie safety related incidents which is what we are talking about isn’t it?

25

Phil Armstrong 06.17.06 at 1:20 pm

Isn’t it a bit sophist to say that because 47 of those taxi driver deaths were murders, they don’t count?

Being a taxi driver involves taking a certain amount of risk. Chopping out the section of risk which happens to be ‘being killed by your passenger’ and claiming that that risk doesn’t count seems wrong — It’s just as much a part of being a taxi driver as the risk of being involved in a road-traffic accident is.

Of course, there are well-documented attempts by the US meat-packing industry to minimise reported accidents at all costs. However, deaths on the job are the one thing they’re probably not going to be able to hide so easily, so you can use it as a proxy for other injury rates. Is is a reasonable proxy? That’s up for discussion I guess, but it’s probably a better one than believing the industry’s reported injury rates.

26

Brandon Berg 06.17.06 at 2:33 pm

I suspect that the main reason that the fatality statistic is not particularly relevant is the fact that the sort of accidents that happen in slaughterhouses are much less likely to result in death than are auto accidents.

Bad Jim (6): It’s not a question of whether workers object to losing limbs. The question is that rate at which they’re willing to greater risk in exchange for higher wages. That they choose to work at slaughterhouses instead of in other jobs that are safer but pay less suggest that they are.

Abb1 (7): There’s no need for anyone to rise up and kill anyone. All they have to do is quit.

Derrida Derider (4): Regarding social mobility, see my piece here on a possible reason for the apparent decline in mobility in the US.

Harry (14): Do you mean that without an election it’s actually illegal for a bunch of employees to get together and refuse to work until their demands are met?

Barry (20): The problem with making employers liable for all injuries is that many injuries can be prevented more efficiently by the workers themselves. If workers are cutting themselves with knives, then yes, there’s probably something the employer can do, somehow, to reduce the odds of that happening. But greater caution on the part of workers might achieve the same thing more efficiently.

The ideal liability rule is one that makes employers liable for those accidents which they can most efficiently prevent, and workers liable for those accidents which they can most efficiently prevent. For accidents which can’t be prevented efficiently, it doesn’t really matter.

I believe that the best real-world approximation of that rule is one in which employers are liable only for accidents resulting from risks which they conceal from their workers. Employers take efficient precautions so that they can attract workers at lower wages and disclose inherent risks (those which cannot be prevented efficiently) in order to limit their liability. Workers take efficient precautions to protect themselves and decide how much inherent risk they’re willing to accept in exchange for higher wages.

27

Barry 06.17.06 at 3:10 pm

Brandon: “Barry (20): The problem with making employers liable for all injuries is that many injuries can be prevented more efficiently by the workers themselves. If workers are cutting themselves with knives, then yes, there’s probably something the employer can do, somehow, to reduce the odds of that happening. But greater caution on the part of workers might achieve the same thing more efficiently.”

I dunno about people where you live, but in my world pain and fear of injury do have an impact on people’s actions. In fact, many people would fear serious injury, even if their employer didn’t care.
Now, perhaps where you live, people just lop off limbs, look at the spurting stump and think ‘crap, I just bought that shirt’.

28

abb1 06.17.06 at 3:12 pm

Brandon, obviously they can’t quit, because they need to eat.

29

Don Quijote 06.17.06 at 3:20 pm

There’s no need for anyone to rise up and kill anyone. All they have to do is quit.

It’s a free country, they are free to starve…

The ideal liability rule is one that makes employers liable for those accidents which they can most efficiently prevent, and workers liable for those accidents which they can most efficiently prevent. For accidents which can’t be prevented efficiently, it doesn’t really matter.

Considering that the principal causes of accidents is the pace at which the line moves, and that the pace is determined by the company, you must be kidding.

That they choose to work at slaughterhouses instead of in other jobs that are safer but pay less suggest that they are.

That dollar or two above minimum wage must surely compensate for the risks at hand.

30

SamChevre 06.17.06 at 3:22 pm

Henry,

I don’t see the complaint. The Economist is writing a story about the immigrant experience in America. Its example is that Mr Queiroz worked in the US, earned $10 an hour, and saved enough to buy a house. I don’t see why the fact that his employer is a particularly bad employer is even slightly relevant (if anything, it makes the US look better–here’s an illegal immigrant working for a notoriously bad employer, and he’s STILL better off than if he’d stayed in Mexico).

I can see the problem if the story is about Smithfield–then the fact that it’s a notoriously bad employer would be very relevant. But the story is about something else.

31

Jack 06.17.06 at 3:22 pm

Taxi driving was chosen as an example because it is extremely dangerous. The force of its use depends upon the reader perceiving taxi driving to be a mundane and therefore representative occupation, not an edge case. That meatpacking is less dangerous than a very dangerous thing is the true extent of the point.

Every ambiguity in that article is resolved in one direction and I can’t imagine the article coming to the Herbert conclusion without an awful lot of persuasion. Are there recent examples of The Economist being both surprised and appaled?

32

Jane Galt 06.17.06 at 3:31 pm

No, that isn’t what we’re talking about.

The point of the article was not “is Smithfields farms a terrific employer?” It was “Are immigrants moving ahead?”

I understand, Henry, why you want to interrogate Smithfield farms (though I stand by my broader point: Bob Herbert is a left-wing columnist with an axe to grind, no more likely to produce an accurate picture of life at Smithfield than a similarly political right-wing columnist–a problem that I’m very sure you would have no problem recognizing in a right-wing columnist.) But that wasn’t really very relevant to the article. The Economist asked Mr Queiroz if he liked his job; Mr Queiroz said yes. I have no doubt that his job is a) an improvement over what he did in Mexico and b) an improvement over what he was doing before in America. As such, it’s very relevant to look at the safety of alternative jobs filled by immigrants, like . . . why, driving a taxi! Or working in a warehouse (more injuries than meatpacking). Immigrants spend their lives doing hard physical, repetitive labour in which it is very easy to get injured.

And “animal slaughter and meatpacking” is a category for people who slaughter animals, and pack the meat. Management is a separate occupation, so no, they aren’t lumping in the office guys with the guys wielding the knives.

Mr Quijote . . . I’m as fascinated by your certainty in the absence of any facts as I was by the other commenters earlier in the thread.

33

abb1 06.17.06 at 3:51 pm

So, apparently the only point of the Economist is that Mr. Queiroz likes this job, or that he likes it better than some other unspecified occupation. This is a very important anecdote – if you’re Mr. Queiroz’s mother.

To the rest of us, Bob Herbert seems to provide a more comprehensive picture.

34

Don Quijote 06.17.06 at 4:49 pm

Mr Quijote . . . I’m as fascinated by your certainty in the absence of any facts as I was by the other commenters earlier in the thread.

Which facts do I seem to be missing Ms Galt?

The fact that the meatpacking industry is a very dangerous industry to work in since it has been deunionized? or the fact that you are a right winger who will excuse any thing as long as it leads to a higher profit margin?

35

Brandon Berg 06.17.06 at 6:03 pm

Barry (27):
Ideally, a tort settlement is supposed to be sufficient to make the victim whole again. If employers were liable for all accidents, then workers’ incentive to avoid damages would be significantly diminished. This is not to say that many workers would be happy to be injured, but the prospect of losing an arm and getting nothing provides a much stronger incentive to be careful than the prospect of losing an arm and gaining a large cash settlement to take back to Mexico.

Don Quijote (29):

It’s a free country, they are free to starve…

There are other jobs available. In the worst case, they could just stay in Mexico. Death by starvation is not unheard of there, but the vast, vast majority of Mexicans somehow manage to avoid succumbing to it. And I suspect that those resourceful enough to get across the border and find employment in the U.S. are at particularly low risk.

Considering that the principal causes of accidents is the pace at which the line moves, and that the pace is determined by the company, you must be kidding.

Then it may be that these accidents can’t be prevented efficiently. Slowing down the lines costs a lot in terms of lost productivity. That said, I doubt very much that who gets hurt and who does not is purely a matter of luck.

That dollar or two above minimum wage must surely compensate for the risks at hand.

It’s three dollars, according to Herbert. And that’s a big difference. Suppose they need $3.00 to cover taxes and living expenses. In that case, an extra $3.00 above minimum wage more than doubles the amount of money they can take back to Mexico. The idea that some people might rationally accept greater risk of injury in exchange is anything but absurd.

Here’s an idea for those of you who think that this is a huge market failure: Pool all your capital together and buy a meat-processing plant. Figure out how to make processing safer, or hire someone else to figure it out for you, and then do it.

Your superior working conditions should allow you to attract plenty of workers, and since they care about safety so much more than money, you should be able to get away with paying less and thus outcompete the other processors. Or you could forgo profits out of the goodness of your hearts. Whatever—it’s your plant. Let me know how it works out.

36

engels 06.17.06 at 6:37 pm

Then it may be that these accidents can’t be prevented efficiently. Slowing down the lines costs a lot in terms of lost productivity. That said, I doubt very much that who gets hurt and who does not is purely a matter of luck…

Sure Brandon, one or two severed limbs here and there is a small price to pay for cheaper hamburgers. And the stupid buggers probably deserved it anyway…

Here’s an idea for those of you who think that this is a huge market failure: Pool all your capital together and buy a meat-processing plant.

Here’s a suggestion for you, Brandon. Get a job in a meat processing plant. If you get your arm chopped off – hey, the tort settlement will more than cover it and you’ll be laughing all the way to the bank. And if you don’t agree with that, you can always head down to Mexico and I’m confident that like the “vast, vast majority” of Mexicans, you too will find a way to avoid starving. Good luck, and enjoy our capitalist utopia!

37

Brandon Berg 06.17.06 at 7:59 pm

Engels: I suppose you think that to be a rather clever analogy, but it’s not. My advice is good: If you all have indeed identified a market failure—that is, if workers at meat processing plants would be happy to accept lower wages in exchange for more safety—then you should be able to fix it at considerable profit to yourselves. How can you say no to fighting for social justice and making a killing?

Your advice is terrible, though. Why would I want to work in a meat processing plant when I have a job that offers much better pay and working conditions? Why would I want to move to Mexico when I’m doing quite well here?

And yes, there is some rate at which trading hacked off limbs for cheaper hamburger is a good deal. If you don’t understand that, then you have no business making policy prescriptions.

38

Jon H 06.17.06 at 8:04 pm

“total number of fatalities (not homicides)in the meatpacking industry averages about 20 a year, versus about 60 a year for taxi and limousine drivers.”

Yet taxi and limousine drivers, I bet, are rarely killed by the tools and equipment they work with.

And I’d wager that few meatpacking employess have been killed by a pistol-packing side of beef.

39

Jon H 06.17.06 at 8:08 pm

Jane Galt writes: “The Economist asked Mr Queiroz if he liked his job; Mr Queiroz said yes.”

I wonder if he was able to speak freely, or if he was asked this in the presence of management.

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Jonathan Goldberg 06.17.06 at 10:43 pm

“the prospect of losing an arm and getting nothing provides a much stronger incentive to be careful than the prospect of losing an arm and gaining a large cash settlement to take back to Mexico.”

Yes, I’ve noticed that people casually throw away limbs any time they think it might pay.

I am at a loss for words.

41

abb1 06.18.06 at 3:40 am

Look, Brandon, you don’t have to take the word ‘starve’ literally. The point is, simply, that these people don’t have a meaningful choice, their options are between very bad and worse.

Very few emplyees do have a meaningful choice of jobs, but these people are in a much worse situation, for various reasons.

The point is that this situations creates no incentive for the employers to improve the working conditions.

Your suggestion that they can always quit or move to Mexico is simply missing the point here. Yes, they can move to Mexico, they can sell their kidneys and so on, but cleary they having all these options doesn’t produce enough pressure on the slaughterhouse owner. It’s not working.

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Colin Brayton 06.19.06 at 8:50 am

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nick s 06.19.06 at 11:56 pm

So, apparently the only point of the Economist is that Mr. Queiroz likes this job, or that he likes it better than some other unspecified occupation. This is a very important anecdote – if you’re Mr. Queiroz’s mother.

Or if you’re Megan McArdle, for whom quantitative data is really tedious.

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