Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle is an exposé of the lives of immigrant workers of the meatpacking industry in Chicago. It revolves around the lives of a Lithuanian family who went to the United States in the hopes of living a better life but ended up destroyed and toyed by the rotten capitalist system. Sinclair uses the idea of the Darwinian evolution in a jungle, where powerless immigrant workers are preyed upon by cruel, wealthy and corrupt capitalists.
The book’s agenda was to provide a compelling critique of capitalism, and raise a socialist alternative. It was meant to make people realize the poor working conditions in Chicago’s slums in order to encourage legislators and the general public to sympathize with the exploited working class. However, his readers were not as much concerned with the sufferings of the working man in America as much as they were concerned about the food in their table. Instead of people supporting the cause of socialism, the book gained popularity because of how it described the meatpacking industry. It is such unintended consequence which Sinclair referred to when he was quoted in saying “I aimed at the public’s heart and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”
In terms of legislation, the public outcry for food safety played a large effect in the passing of the Food and Drug Act, including the Meat Inspection Act. Even President Theodore Roosevelt, although a critic of muckrakers or investigative journalists, wrote a letter to Upton Sinclair in March 15, 1906 discussing socialism at the beginning but ended his letter by saying “But all this has nothing to do with the fact that the specific evils you point out shall, if their existence be proved, and if I have power, be eradicated” (Ashland University). Indeed, the picture of the meatpacking industry that Sinclair wrote about is quite disturbing. Most descriptively seen in Chapter Fourteen, Sinclair wrote,
[T]he meat would be shoveled into carts, and the man who did the shoveling would not trouble to lift out a rat even when he saw one There was no place for the men to wash their hands before they ate their dinner, and so they made a practice of washing them in the water that was to be ladled into the sausage [T]here were some jobs that it only paid to do once in a long time, and among these was the cleaning out of the waste barrels. Every spring they did it; and in the barrels would be dirt and rust and old nails and stale water it would be taken up and dumped into the hoppers with fresh meat, and sent out to the public’s breakfast (Sinclair 147-148).
As mentioned earlier, the book had a huge impact on the Food and Drugs Act of 1906. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, “the nauseating condition of the meat-packing industry that Upton Sinclair captured in The Jungle was the final precipitating force behind both a meat inspection law and a comprehensive food and drug law.” The act was the first legislation in the country which sought to regulate product labeling of both food and drugs. It was necessary for the food to be regulated in the 1900s because prior to the Food and Drug Act, some companies did not truthfully state the ingredients of the food and drugs they were manufacturing. Because of the act, “food or drug label could not be false or misleading in any particular, and the presence and amount of eleven dangerous ingredients, including alcohol, heroin, and cocaine, had to be listed” (Food and Drug Administration).
Today, there are still many haunting stories on food production – especially since the demands of the growing population of consumers has to be met, in one way or another. In particular, the documentary Food, Inc. directed by Robert Kenner provides a look at the food supply situation in our industrialized society. In one of the chapters in the documentary, it has been discussed how our current food system may result to occasional food contamination and other health risks. They presented the story of a mother of a toddler who died from E. coli which the toddler acquired from eating a hamburger. It was revealed how feeding cows with the cheap and abundant corn crops increases the incidence of E. coli because corn raises the level of the bacteria in the animals. Even the farms where chickens and other animals are butchered to supply fast food chains are often in very poor conditions. Documentaries such as Food, Inc. illustrate how the problems of the country in the period when Sinclair wrote his novel did not fundamentally change throughout the years. While there have been improvements in the way food and drug manufacturers handle the products we consume, as evidenced by the passing of legislations such as the Food and Drug Act; the demands of the consumer along with the greed of large capitalist corporations are giving rise to similar issues.
The new situation that we find ourselves in demands new thinking – and in some instances, it also demands new legislation. For one, there is the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Action Act of 2008 signed by President George Bush during his final stay at the White House. The legislation was meant to track down the child slave trade by ensuring that the children who enters the country has a valid claim for asylum, determined by a court hearing, instead of being sent back to their country of origin. However, according to the Obama administration, as stated in Hulse, “the law is partly responsible for trying its hands in dealing with the current influx of children”. On the other hand, immigration advocates see no need in changing the law and the Obama administration should instead be able to use the existing framework must bring some order and ensure that the law meets its purpose (Hulse).
Another legislation that came as a result of a crisis is the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform and Consumer Protection Act. It is a financial reform legislation passed by the Obama administration in 2010 as a response to the financial crisis in 2008. According to the United States Government website, “Dodd-Frank will prevent the excessive risk-taking that led to the financial crisis. The law also provides common-sense protections for American families, creating new consumer watchdog to prevent mortgage companies and pay-day lenders from exploiting consumers. These new rules will build a safer, more stable financial system—one that provides a robust foundation for lasting economic growth and job creation.” There are many criticisms surrounding the legislation. For one, Laurson and Pieler believe that “a grossly ill-defined law, assigning massive authority over the entire financial sector is much more than a problem of regulatory overreach. It is a direct assault on the notion that government must have defined limits. What is more, the ‘systemically important’ strictures of Dodd-Frank put the Federal Reserve—probably the institution of the federal government least accountable to the public—in the driver’s seat.
Reiterating what has been stated earlier, the book was intended to support the socialist agenda of eradicating capitalism. It was a critique to the dangers of a capitalist system, most especially its effects to the many immigrant workers who are living terribly. The author believes that the world that Sinclair describes in his book still exists today to some degree. To support this claim, the author shall discuss the Apple Corporation in the context of globalization.
Globalization has allowed for the “exchanges of currencies, capital movements, in technology transfer, in people moving through international travel and migration, and in the international flow of information and ideas” (Intrilligator 2). As evidence of this global exchange, numerous multinational corporations outsource manufacturing services outside of their base, usually in areas where labor is cheap.
Apple outsources most of its jobs to China, particularly in Foxconn Company. China has remained a very valuable investment for Apple and many other corporations as well, which could be attested to the relatively effective supply chain that can deliver the demands of the company but without compromising product quality. One other reason that makes China advantageous for outsourcing is its state policies that make it favorable for corporations that capitalizes to maximize profits while minimalizing production costs, which usually extends to the employees’ wages. However, techniques to lower the cost of production, such as paying sub-optimal salaries and unstable or unsafe working conditions, have raised many concerns and concerns over the effects of globalization.
In particular, a company named Foxconn Technology, which specializes in assembling products and devices for Apple and other large corporations, was involved in a multitude of suicide incidents in 2011. As reported by Watts, the death of Ma Xiangqian, a 19-year-old worker of the said company, has allegedly led to the following incidents of suicides of employees. Most of these suicides occurred when the employees was seen jumping from the buildings around the factory complex. The circumstances surrounding the death of Xiangqian were deemed mysterious, especially since his body was found battered outside a company building. The said male worker was an immigrant from Henan and was said to have had an argument with his higher-ups prior to the discovery of his death. Foxconn denied responsibility and the allegations that they mistreat their workers, but the company's reputation became even more damaged following the subsequent suicides of the twelve other migrant employees who were in the age range of 19-24 years (Watts). While the company denied these allegations, the damage to the reputation of Foxconn has ultimately led to the following twelve suicides of the employees. These employees were found to be migrants with ages between 19 and 24 years old.
Indeed, there are many issues surrounding transnational corporations and how it treats its assembly line workers. While Sinclair wrote on the context of Chicago, the exploitation of capitalists nowadays happen in a wider global space. The growing popularity of the Apple products illustrate how there are still many people either unaware or apathetic to the conditions of the poor workers, much as how Sinclair disdains the apathy of most people in his time to the story of the Lithuanian family.
Internationally-accepted and respected legislations or conventions that will seek to protect the rights of every worker, irrespective of his country of origin, can be one possible solution to hinder large corporations to manipulate people at will. Apart from that, there is a need for a strong state which will implement policies in support of its citizens and impose strict limitations to businesses that enters their country. These legislations, at the end, will require agencies and departments who will ensure that the law is respected and punish accordingly those who try to go against it.
Ashland University. Letter to Upton Sinclair. n.d. 29 November 2014 <http://www.teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/to-upton-sinclair/>.
Duhigg, Charles and Keith Bradsher. How the U.S. Lost Out on iPhone Work. 21 January 2012. 21 November 2014 <http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/22/business/apple-america-and-a-squeezed-middle-class.html?pagewanted=all>.
Food and Drug Administration. The 1906 Food and Drugs Act and Its Enforcement. 18 June 2009. 29 November 2014 <www.fda.gov/AboutFDA/WhatWeDo/History/Origin/ucm054819.htm>.
Hulse, Carl. Immigrant Surge Rooted in Law to Curb Child Trafficking. 7 July 2014. 28 November 2014 <http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/08/us/immigrant-surge-rooted-in-law-to-curb-child-trafficking.html?_r=0>.
Intrilligator, Michael. "Globalization of the World Economy: Potential Benefits and Costs and a Net Assessment." January 2003. Milken Institute Publication. 21 November 2014 <http://assets1b.milkeninstitute.org/assets/Publication/ResearchReport/PDF/globalization_pb.pdf>.
Laurson, Jens and George Pieler. Are 'Systemically Important' Institutions Too Big To Fail? 13 January 2014. 27 November 2014 <http://www.forbes.com/sites/laursonpieler/2013/01/13/are-systemically-important-institutions-too-big-to-fail/>.
Sinclair, Uption. The Jungle. New York: Doubleday Page Company, 1906.
Sparke, M. Introducing Globalization Ties, Tensions, and Uneven Integration. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013.
United States Government. Wall Street Reform: The Dodd-Frank Act. n.d. 28 November 2014 <http://www.whitehouse.gov/economy/middle-class/dodd-frank-wall-street-reform>.
Watts, John. Foxconn offers pay rises and suicide nets as fears grow over wave of deaths. 10 May 2010. 21 November 2014 <http://www.theguardian.com/world/2010/may/28/foxconn-plant-china-deaths-suicides>.