The moral and legal status of animals is not an isolated issue as it clearly exists and relates to the society in which it exists or doesn’t, as the case maybe. Regrettably, the animal welfare/rights movement has yet to succeed in effectively placing a concern for animals in a larger and progressive context.

This point was brought home to me again this morning as I caught up with reading Felicity Lawrence’s excellent article in The Guardian, Meat packers united, which explores the terms and conditions of employment for those who work in chicken slaughterhouses. Yes, as an animal rights activist I want to see all places where animals are exploited and killed for our selfish and inessential needs closed down; but I also care about those, who are very often disadvantage, who work in them. As someone who worked in a chicken processing plant in 1973 I know how dehumanizing (to put it mildly) this work is.

Lawrence’s article explores well the efforts of unions to organize workers, often migrants, and the benefits to these businesses when they look after their employees. The food we eat is produced by a complex web of producers, distributors, wholesalers and retailers. Straightening this out so that not one group of people (or animals, for that matter) remains abused is a challenge. Vegans aren’t exempt because we should be concerned about the conditions in which our food is grown and produced as well as by those who are employed to produce it. Lawrence writes that “abuses and tensions were not confined to the meat sector but likely to apply to all sectors using low-paid migrants, from construction to cleaning, catering and social care.”

It’s not only the unions that are demanding improved standards in how food is produced. More enlightened retailers (Lawrence cites Marks & Spencer) increasingly are asking for scrutiny, accountability and, if necessary, change. Lawrence’s article is recommended as a way to glean quickly insight into the UK situation. Clearly, cheap food isn’t cheap at all because costs are either not being met appropriately or they’re being avoided and passed over onto someone else, as in environmental clean-ups which society often ends up paying for.

Nonetheless, I like Lawrence’s conclusion.

The new industry phrase for this approach is moving on from “lean manufacturing” to “people-centric lean manufacturing”. It may strike others as reinventing the wheel to discover that treating workers decently actually pays.

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