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What About the Migrant Workers?

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Every so often I will be asked, in response to my veganism, “but what about the migrant workers who pick your vegetables?” It’s usually asked by some well-meaning person who thinks they might trip me up and force me to acknowledge some kind of hypocrisy in my values. But my answer is always the same – that I stand in solidarity with workers who are exploited by the industry.

See, when non-vegans ask this question, what they’re really doing is subtly accusing the entire vegan movement of placing animal rights above the human beings who pick produce. The majority of produce comes from underpaid and overworked labourers, and by bringing up these facts, non-vegans aim to prove that the vegan movement doesn’t care about human rights.

My issue with the migrant worker argument is largely that the suffering and exploitation of agricultural workers is a valid and important human rights concern which comes at the fault of capitalism, not the vegan movement. I have to question if those who have hurled this criticism in my direction have ever stopped to consider whether they themselves care about agricultural workers, or whether they only use their suffering as a prop in their vendetta against veganism.

The reality is that anti-poverty and workers rights become central to veganism once one recognizes how all forms of oppression and exploitation intersect, and are fuelled by capitalism. Veganism stems from the core belief that animals, much like humans, are deserving of basic rights. For example, the right to not be exploited for profit.

A large majority of agricultural workers are low income immigrants and it’s true that they often face horrible work conditions – gruelling manual labour, long hours with little pay and no benefits, and poor working environments filled with harassment and safety hazards. The conditions of slaughterhouse workers are not far off, with employees as well forced to grapple with the mental health effects of killing beings day in and day out.

Those who tout the migrant worker argument ought to ask themselves if they care as well for the suffering of slaughterhouse workers? And if they care about agricultural workers so much, what are they doing to support them? Is this criticism genuine and does it help to break down the exploitation of human or non human bodies?

And behind all the ingenuity, the rationale behind the migrant workers question itself comes from two unfounded ideas. The first being the assumption that vegans eat more produce to make up for a lack of meat and therefore inflame the suffering of farm workers. We know this to not be true as the animals slaughtered for meat are fed a lifetime’s worth of produced picked by agricultural workers, on top of the produce consumed first hand by non-vegans.

The second idea is that vegans must be hypocrites for caring about animal lives but not the rights of humans. And to a certain degree, I get it – the vegan movement, like any social movement, is full of flaws and conflicting ideology. As the movement becomes more mainstream, it’s ideology becomes more diluted. And yes, there are vegans who claim to eat “cruelty free” without giving thought to the implications of that claim. Quite frankly, the claim is hypocritical and naive, blatantly ignoring the ways in which humans are exploited throughout the production of food. However, to use human suffering as justification for animal suffering seems, as well, hypocritical and naive.

So while yes, it’s true that it’s near-impossible to consume truly “cruelty-free”, it’s still our responsibility to do what is in our power to fight for the issues closest to us, and to show solidarity to others throughout various movements doing the same.

Photo from Pexels 

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