In what feels like a terrifying regression to the 1890s, we are faced with the fact that children in America, “as young as 13,” have been put to work in slaughterhouses.
The Department of Labor has “confirmed teenagers were working through the middle of the night sanitizing slaughterhouses before heading back to high school in the morning,” Fortune reported, with the open question of whether further investigation will find that this is only “the tip of the slaughterhouse iceberg.”
According to CBS News, by December, investigators had found “at least 50 minors scrubbing and sanitizing dangerous equipment on overnight shifts at five different meatpacking plants in three states.”
Here we see the interconnection of systems of oppression. The hidden nature of the factory-farming industry enables it to be abusive to workers and cruel to animals — in addition to environmentally destructive. And now there is the added layer of child labor.
Rabbi Aryeh Bernstein has recognized that a righteous, prophetic outrage is the necessary tool for taking on such a tangled mess of injustice. He laid out our initial task:
Practice radical empathy to understand how that particular grief is located in a web of oppressions. Pay attention to food, at the center of all abuse and potentially at the center of liberation. Facing the wreckage of our Sodomite immigration crisis, of our health care crisis, of racism and misogyny, of animal abuse and factory farms, cry out: “Eikha”, “How could this be?!”
And once our minds are educated and our hearts are sufficiently fired up, I believe we need to break the agriculture industry’s control over politicians. We’re thankful that the Labor Department is bringing these problems to light, but we also know that factory farming is cozied up with the government in a way that makes its propensity for committing injustices a constant presence. One practical policy solution is to end government subsidies that enable the factory farms to undercut the more humane and ethical competition.
Imagine yourself in the position of having a 13-year-old child. You know how important it is for them to focus on their education, learn life lessons and play with their friends. They should not be made to work cleaning hot, bloody, sweaty slaughterhouses.
In the grace after meals, we traditionally recite from Psalm 126:
When the Lord restores the fortunes of Zion
—we see it as in a dream—
our mouths shall be filled with laughter,
our tongues, with songs of joy.
We dream of a world filled with the laughter of children. The contrast between a food system that takes away the laughter of children and this reminder of the world we know we’re called to yearn and work for ought to be alarming. Of course, we find the need for humane labor policies directly in the Torah, as it says in Deuteronomy 24:15:
You must pay out the wages due on the same day, before the sun sets, for the worker is needy and urgently depends on it; else a cry to the Lord will be issued against you and you will incur guilt.
We must see that, by participating in or benefitting from these systems, or even by standing aside and watching, we’re assuming some of the guilt that comes with such abuses. As the investigations have shown, malpractice in factory farming is not a case of a few bad apples. We are confronting a system that habitually continues to make itself rich off of deeply exploitative practices.
And we cannot think that those of us who keep kosher are automatically immune. One of the most tragic forms of Jewish assimilation in America is the assimilation of the sacred moral vehicle of kashrut into the factory-farming industry.
Whether you’re a vegan, a meat-eater or something in between, we should all be concerned about the countless and various inhumane practices in slaughterhouses. Whatever our food choices are, we must unite to combat these injustices. As Jews, we have a duty to stand firm in our moral grounding and to fight against the abuses that go into our own food and into the food that nourishes others.