The Outlaw Ocean, Meatpacking Plants, and Modern-Day Slavery

At the Metropole, Hanoi — you can almost hear the ghost of Graham Greene talking

I’ve recently finished listening to Ian Urbina’s excellent book, The Outlaw Ocean, on my summertime bike rides on the Palouse. He covers a variety of topics in the book, from Paul Watson’s Sea Shepherd crew chasing illegal fishing boats in the Southern Ocean, to the more quixotic adventures on Sealand, an abandoned artillery platform-cum-country just miles off the British coast.

The book is amazing insofar as the author, in writing it, actually survived to write it. There are so many opportunities offered up for assassination during witnessing that Urbina talks about, I can’t even imagine how he survived. And while I do know, from my Class V kayaking days, the attitude of managing incumbent disaster and even enjoying it, I can’t imagine the long, boring hours at sea where one might actually ponder one’s fate. Whitewater’s offers of eternal liberation show up fast and furious, and once you put in on a river, there is beauty aplenty to distract you while you navigate the indifferent forces of water and Mother Nature.

But all that time at sea — I can’t help but think of Nietzsche’s famous quote — stare into the abyss long enough, and the abyss stares back at you.

The most interesting part of the book for me was reading about treatment of the various fishing fleet crews, and the indifference of the various national masters of those fleets, towards either indirect inescapable indentured servitude, or even direct enslavement of crew members. The first form is far more prevalent than the first, but the second is also real. Urbina profiles various individuals sold as human chattels into slavery, and literally traded on the high seas. If you need a picture of modern slavery, you need to look no further. The deep reality is that it is likely not that different than the historic variety, filled with beatings and isolation. Reading the book will fill you with a contempt for Confederate revisionists, that’s for sure. Really? You think slavery was a happy time? Really?

The thing that stuck out to me more than anything, though (not surprisingly, for those that know my writing) is the larger macro labor dynamics involved. Almost all the countries profiled — Taiwan being the most notable — are rapidly rising, middle-class economies. As someone who’s been to Taiwan, I’ve often said in custom and policy it has more in common with Western Europe than its other East Asian neighbors.

But what that does is create conditions for a labor shortage — where the nastiest jobs simply cannot be filled by the native residents. And the native residents still have the demands that they historically had for (in this case) diet. Someone has to do those jobs that no one wants to do. In the case of Taiwan, it’s people from Cambodia, the Philippines, and Indonesia. And lest one think it’s only Taiwan — it’s not. There is a larger dynamic that exists in keeping people in brutal jobs. Urbina’s book leaves no doubt that fishing is one of those jobs. What happens when you generate a social welfare state in the middle of other nations grappling constantly with severe poverty? You create the dynamic for slavery.

Urbina profiles multiple times the various staffing agencies that are used to keep crews on the various nation’s fishing boats coming back, often in the face of the usual smorgasbord of brutality, including rape. What is also discussed is how little the men (and they are basically all men) are paid in the context of the work. I think the easy, go-to answer here regarding low wages is that the fishing companies themselves want to maximize profits, and of course, they do. But there’s an underlying dynamic that’s also prevalent that is likely more important. When people are paid so poorly, they cannot generate any other options for livelihoods. They have to keep coming back, no matter what the conditions. Their families, the recipients of the meager wages, need the money, and there is no way to better one’s economic prospects. So they are literally “wage slaves”, in a way that one-ups any Western version of the same term.

This dynamic, of paying people so poorly, who are often nationally disenfranchised, is not unique to the fishing industry. The media’s coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic seriously turned up the heat on the meat-packing industry back during the real thick of the pandemic. Meat packing plant workers, working in confined spaces, in wet, warm environments, were subject to rapid spread of COVID through working conditions. And indeed, when COVID-19 showed up in those environments, it rapidly spread to everyone in the plant. Testing was (and still is) weak, but it’s safe to say that if you worked in a plant, you were part of what I call the “COVID infectiousness experiment.” The answer to that is “Yes — COVID is very infectious.” But what was not reported, mostly because it wasn’t particularly interesting, was that the COVID death rates were nominal, or likely even under any national average. It’s hard to tell without extensive research. Writing about how the media has handled the pandemic will have to wait. But the short version is that if the storyline in this time doesn’t fit “COVID is the scourge of the ages” — it’s not going to get researched and published.

What I found more shocking and sad than any COVID-19 story about the meatpacking industry is the usual state of affairs extant in the labor situation in the meatpacking industry. A good hunk of the labor force consists of undocumented immigrants, paid a bare minimum wage, with lousy health care, working in slaughterhouses where the noise levels of screaming animals would make you wild. For folks that normally read this blog, yes — I am a meat eater, and I believe that a lack of saturated fat in our diets is actually condemning us to the metabolic syndrome/diabetes crisis that is fueling a part of our national collapse.

But at the same time, one can see where we have created a dynamic not unlike the dynamics on the various fishing boats of rising economies. These are jobs no one wants to do, and the reason for the paltry pay is not so much a factor of increased profits. It’s because if people were paid more, they would leave. Who wants to live in the middle of Iowa, in a collapsed town, in the middle of the winter? It might be palatable in the context of a tight community, where you were paid a living wage and could raise a family. But metaphorically and literally, that ship has sailed for the Somali and Mexican workers working in the business. The Somalis, of course, can’t leave to go back to Somalia with any hope of return. They are trapped on the U.S.S. Iowa. But the Mexicans, who used to at least enjoy the benefits of a more open border, are also trapped. And it’s safe to say that holding a minimum wage job in a slaughterhouse is not something that’s aspirational for future generations.

The problem exists in spades for other professions as well. Nations like the Philippines have long exported their people for low-end service workers. I’ve stood at the gate in the Manila airport where they out-process their people for shipping to other countries — most notably the UAE. And I can remember happier days yucking it up with all the pretty little Filipinas in the malls in Dubai ten years ago. But as the gap between rich and poor grow, one can see that there are larger emergent dynamics in how the system works. Once you drift away from some version of a culture that believes in the entitlement of a robust middle-class as part of any job category, slavery comes back with a vengeance. And there is obviously some line that gets crossed, wage-level-wise, that accelerates that prospect.

There are no easy answers to any of this — especially at the point where we are at right now. Robust workers’ movements require time, and are facilitated by education, both under increasing attack as the gap between rich and poor grow. A moribund, or even hostile body politic obviously doesn’t help, as well as persistent myths of “pulling one up by one’s bootstraps.”

I think it can help to recognize that these dynamics are emergent, however. They are not necessarily drummed up by evil corporate types, though it is also hard to believe that a discussion of the situation hasn’t come up in board rooms in places like Tyson Foods. They are emergent from wage differentials and the socioeconomic system. These systems also generate the demand for the kind of leadership, which inherently has to be low-empathy and insulated, or even empathy-disordered, that will keep the system going. It’s no surprise in the middle of the COVID outbreak that getting those workers back inside the plant became such a high priority — even if COVID itself did not turn out to be the mortal threat it has been portrayed as.

And while automation in the food industry undoubtedly will help — my good friend that is a director of research inside a large food automation firm has told me that the demand for automated solutions has never been higher — in the end, we have constructed a society where the denial of human potential is real, and growing. I liken it to collapsing soil around a large hole. More and more of us are standing on the edge of that hole, with our children in front of us. Declining generational wages are a sign that more and more of our children can, and will slip into that hole.

I strongly recommend reading/listening to Urbina’s book. But don’t stop there. Take the contents of this post and look around to where the same dynamic is happening. And let people know. The crisis we are having is fundamentally one of memetics – the old models of how we understand things simply are failing right and left. And change in the physical world will only happen once we change first our minds.

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