The Chain Conveyor Gang

Aug. 23, 2021

The British meat industry calls for prison labor.

I’ve been in a few meat processing plants in my career, and every time, as I watched the workers toiling in those cold, dank environments – sawing away at pork carcasses, hacking off chicken wings, slicing off breasts, wielding sharp knives shoulder-to-shoulder as they try to keep their balance on slippery floors, wearing heavy, clumsy chain-mail gloves – I’ve thought, This is one step up from being in prison.

Well, apparently there are some people in England who agree with me.

The British meat industry, like America’s, is undergoing a severe labor crisis. The workforce has faced a double whammy, from COVID and Brexit. The industry has 14,000 job vacancies, according to the Association of Independent Meat Suppliers (AIMS). So that agency is turning to that last resort of desperate industrialists everywhere: prisoners.

AIMS is asking the British government to lend the industry some prisoners, either recently released or still serving their time. An AIMS spokesperson told the BBC that prisons “have got offenders and prison-leavers, we have got members who need labor. It seems sensible to bring the two together."

Maybe it is; after all, labor is supposed to be part of prisoners’ rehabilitation. But I can’t help thinking that this situation doesn’t speak well for Britain’s prison system so much as it speaks ill of its meat industry.

Yes, it’s an extraordinary situation. Brexit is a problem, although I’d be interested to know if anyone in the Tory government has made any connection between forcing foreigners with EU passports out of the country, and factories suddenly being understaffed. And yes, COVID is still a problem, exacerbated in the UK by a government-issued phone app that pings people when they come into contact with an infected person and recommends isolation; the resulting drop in available labor has been dubbed a “pingdemic.”

But still and all...prisoners? Really? When I think of prison labor, I picture making license plates, breaking rocks – doing things that no free person would have any reason or desire to do.

If the meat industry in the UK, or here, wants to survive post-pandemic, it’ll have to make its jobs more attractive to people who actually have a choice of where to work. When you have to depend on prisoners to do a job because you literally can’t find anyone else to do it, maybe the job itself is the problem.

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