I knew this job was going to be different than anything I had experienced before. I had seriously underestimated what I was walking into.
I went to Wisconsin* this summer, taking advantage of the rare opportunity to be in a place I’d never been before to spend the months with my boyfriend. The expectation before I arrived was that I would get a job to save for a car that I aimed to buy once I went back to school. I wouldn’t be spending a lot of extra money because the town my boyfriend resided in was very small. As you can imagine, given the size of the town and the COVID restrictions, there were very few opportunities waiting for me. I struggled to find a job. Finally, I sucked up my pride and applied to a meat factory that paid $13.50 per hour and I didn't think it would be too taxing mentally and physically.
After a couple of weeks, I finally had a call back from the meat factory laying out the details for the job and only shift available: the night shift. With no other options, I became a factory worker. The job entailed an overnight eight-hour shift in a 40-degree temperature room six days per week (I got paid $27 per hour for the sixth day). I knew this job was going to be different than anything I had experienced before. I had seriously underestimated what I was walking into.
On my first day of work, I attended an orientation where we learned the basics of the factory, signed paperwork, and received our hardhats. It was boring, to say the least. I did make a friend while waiting for orientation to end. He was an older Malaysian man who did not speak much English. I tried to help him the best I could, but, unfortunately, I didn’t speak Arabic, so there was little I could do. I wondered how he’d learn the rules or read his contract if they were in English. This didn’t seem to matter, however. Our manager told him the answers to the quiz and where to sign and sent him along to start his first day. This was my first introduction to the treatment and lack of sensitivity toward immigrant workers in this establishment.
My supervisor came a few moments later and only said, “Put your things in a locker, then I will walk you through what needs to happen every time you get here.” That's it. No introduction or niceties. I was a bit put off by this approach but still continued with my workday.
When we arrived on the floor we had to wash our hands and put on our garments so we didn’t touch any of the meat with our clothes or bare skin. I was greeted with the same brusqueness by our floor manager who just walked us over what would be doing for that day and how to do it. On my first day, I was placed at a four-sided sorting table with three other people and sorted out the bad meat versus the good. This continued for hours as I stood there shivering because I hadn’t worn enough clothes and my fingers began to numb in the thin gloves we were provided. The shift was up after eight hours of standing, one 30 minute lunch break, one 15 minute break, and a couple of numb fingers. I made it and somehow reminded myself that I could see the end of this job.
Two months later I did make it. It certainly was not easy. I dreaded going back every day. It was the most mind-numbing job I’ve ever worked. However, I learned so much about workers in this environment, our common food production, and even how I dissociated the food we were processing from food that people are eating at home. Some things that piqued my concern were related to COVID-19, sanitation, and workers' treatment. For example, there were many workers on the line right next to each other. People were sneezing and coughing without management seeming to care that they were sick. The management would speak harshly to most of the foreign workers or give them the hardest jobs. At times, the sausage would fall on the floor, and we were required not to pick it up because of cross-contamination yet people still did very often. This isn't to say it was all terrible; most of my co-workers were older or the same age as me and were very nice. The pay was also good for my standards with advances the longer you stayed and ample opportunities for overtime. Why would anyone want to leave? Despite these seemingly positive opportunities, the conditions of the job strained every person who worked there. Many suffered from physical injuries, lethargy, mental health problems, and extreme work conditions.
I recognize the privilege I had to walk away from those conditions. Not every worker has that option. I hope with policy changes and a little more empathy, we can change our production systems to improve environments for workers like me and those I worked with. All in all, next time you buy meat in any form from the store, consider what it took and the conditions people had to endure for it to get there.
*Location has been altered
Johari Weaver was an FFAC intern and is an undergraduate at University of Texas at Austin.