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How popular food brands get away with using prison labor
Jan 29, 2024
Episode 1086

How popular food brands get away with using prison labor

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Plus, have people lost their minds?

A two-year investigation by the Associated Press digs into the prison labor behind the foods we eat every day. We’ll discuss how incarcerated people’s labor is tied to some of the world’s biggest companies, including Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and Walmart. Then, we’ll unpack the negotiations over a bipartisan border security deal. And, a wild conspiracy theory involving the NFL, Taylor Swift and the election?

Here’s everything we talked about today:

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Make Me Smart January 29, 2024 Transcript

Note: Marketplace podcasts are meant to be heard, with emphasis, tone and audio elements a transcript can’t capture. Transcripts are generated using a combination of automated software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting it.

Kai Ryssdal 

Alright, let’s go. God, freakin.

Kimberly Adams 

Feels like a Monday to me.

Kai Ryssdal 

Hey everybody, I’m Kai Ryssdal. Welcome back to Make Me Smart, where we make today make sense even though you’ve forgotten your new computer password, and you can’t get into your freakin stuff.

Kimberly Adams 

I’m so sorry. It’s a Monday, just like have to write it off as that. Anyway, I’m Kimberly Adams, thank you to everyone joining us on what is very much a Monday today. January the 29th.

Kai Ryssdal 

Oh my god, right. So, I will get over myself. We are going to, in this order, do some news and then do some smiles. And then get out of here. What do you got?

Kimberly Adams 

My news is this big AP investigation. The Associated Press does amazing investigations, are one of the few places that still has resources to do years long investigations. And this new one is a doozy that they’re out with today. Headline is, “Prisoners in the US are part of a hidden workforce linked to hundreds of popular food brands.” And they dug into prison labor, which is a thing that is very legal in most parts of the country. But just how pervasive it is, how exploitative it can be, and how tied in it is with many of the things that many of us eat every day. So, I’ll read a couple of moments from it. “These workers are among America’s most vulnerable laborers. If they refuse to work, some can jeopardize their chances of parole or face punishment like being sent to solitary confinement. They are also often excluded from protections guaranteed to almost all other full-time workers, even when they are seriously injured or killed on the job. The goods these prisoners produce wind up in the supply chains of a dizzying array of products found in most American kitchens, from Frosted Flakes cereal and Ball Park hot dogs to Gold Metal flour, Coca-Cola and Riceland rice. They are on the shelves of virtually every supermarket in the country including Kroger, Target, Aldi and Whole Foods. And some goods are exported, including to countries that have had products blocked from entering the U.S. for using forced or prison laborers. And many of the companies buying directly from prisons are violating their own policies against the use of such labor. But it’s completely legal, dating back largely to the need for labor to help rebuild the South’s shattered economy after the Civil War.” So, wow, well boy, and they have a lot of firsthand stories from people being forced to work in this way. And you know, obviously, it’s a really deep investigation, very long story, but definitely worth reading. And I’m looking at some of these brands. Other ones include that, “the AP tied prison labor to the supply chains of some of the world’s biggest companies.” They’ve got a graphic and includes Hillshire Farms, McDonald’s, Sara Lee, Cargill, Walmart, Jimmy Dean, Land O’Lakes, Pepsi, Tyson, Costco, Cheerios, Burger King, Sam’s Club. You name it. And Russell Stover. It’s wild. So that’s yeah. And not just sort of grains and vegetable picking. It’s also meats and people working in, you know, meat processing facilities, as well as out in the fields. And the photos of course, as usual with the AP are amazing.

Kai Ryssdal 

Yeah. Yeah, I will read that. I have not seen it actually until you put it in the rundown. It’s kind of amazing.

Kimberly Adams

Yeah. Yep. What’s your news?

Kai Ryssdal

Okay, so the general theme of my items today both news and Make Me Smile is people have lost their freakin minds. The subtext of the news item is, the subhead of the news item is, the Republican Party is not a serious governing party. And its news over the weekend out of Oklahoma, that the Oklahoma Republican Party has formally censured its Republican Senator James Lankford. Why you ask, because Senator Lankford is leading negotiations on a bipartisan border deal that former President Trump has come out against, and now the Oklahoma Grand Old Party says no, no, no, you can’t possibly be a good Republican in good standing if you try to work in a bipartisan manner, and get things actually done on a really significant piece of this country’s challenges. And you’re just, you can’t do that. I’m sorry. And that’s insane. It’s just insane.

Kimberly Adams 

And can I emphasize again, that we do not have the legislation. We do not have the text of this bill. They are censuring this guy, condemning the resolutions, condemning and censuring him based on what has been rumored about this legislation, what’s been linked about this legislation. President Biden made some comments about, asking for the authority to close the border if it exceeded a certain number of people coming in per day, which is again, not a formal thing that is in the bill yet. So, wild.

Kai Ryssdal 

Yes. yes, the Vice Chairman of the Oklahoma Republican Party, Wayne Hill signed his note today, or the other day. In liberty, Wayne Hill, okay, GOP Vice Chairman. So that’s my news. People have lost their freakin minds. And I will continue that in our smiles.

Kimberly Adams 

Okay, well, then I guess we should move on to those. Let’s pick it up with you.

Kai Ryssdal 

If you watched any football this weekend, you know that Kansas City Chiefs beat the Baltimore Ravens and are going to the Superbowl. If you spend any time online or in point of fact, in many newspapers of record around the country this weekend, you also know and again, the framing here is people have lost their bleeping minds. People are now saying, that it was the Chiefs’ win and look, they’ve got a great quarterback. He’s very popular. Travis Kelce dates Taylor Swift. That’s not incidental to what I’m about to say. They’re very popular, this whole team. Conspiracy theorists, including according to The Daily Beast, Vivek Ramaswamy, who goes full tinfoil hat, are saying that the NFL set this up. They engineered the win by the Chiefs, so the Taylor Swift and Travis Kelce, Taylor Swift of course one of the most popular people on the planet, can make a surprise appearance at Super Bowl and endorse President Joe Biden. What is the matter with people? There’s also a guy, some GOP guy who I saw on Twitter about 20 minutes ago with 545,000 followers, who said, and this is almost a verbatim quote of his tweet, “Travis Kelce will get $70,000 for winning the NFC Championship. Now you understand why Taylor Swift is with him.” She’s like a billionaire. People have lost their freaking minds.

Kimberly Adams.

I don’t understand.

Kai Ryssdal 

People have lost their minds. And if this is the state of discourse today, and I know I’m contributing to it, but only in my outrage. Then ladies and gentlemen, the republic is lost.

Kimberly Adams 

Wow, I had not heard that conspiracy theory. Randomly, I did end up watching some football this weekend, which is very unusual for me. But I watched the Detroit Lions and San Francisco 49ers game, which was intense. What a comeback. And I was very caught by some of the ads that were running, and to the point that I’m actually working on a story about it today, because so many of these ads reference the economy, in terms of people, student loans, in terms of not being able to afford college, not being able to afford to move out of your parents’ home. And it strikes me that, you know, a lot of these companies, they’re trying to sell a product with the narrative, “you can’t afford X, so buy X instead.” And, you know, but speaking of Taylor Swift, which you know, I generally don’t, but there was a really cute article in the Washington Post last week about, and a very gendered framing on this, but whatevs about how because so many young girls are now watching football because of Taylor Swift, they’re creating these new bonding moments with their dads. Oh, wow. Huh? Yeah. Again, very gendered, but it was cute nevertheless.

Kai Ryssdal 

Yes. All right. So that was my rant. You get to go now.

Kimberly Adams 

Well, mine is very business. But it did kind of make me smile in a huh, that’s an interesting experiment thing. So, it’s a shot and chaser. First of all, Walmart has announced that its latest perk for store managers is that they will offer those managers shares in the company. So, let’s see. How do I phrase this? Walmart says, “said Monday that starting with a company’s new fiscal year, which begins Thursday, U.S. store managers will receive up to $20,000 in Walmart stock grants every year. The move follows an announcement made by the discounter earlier in the month it would raise the starting base pay for store managers while redesigning its bonus plan to emphasize profits more with these leaders. The pay raise and bonus change will also be effective Thursday.” So, it’s trying to incentivize managers on a local level to be more invested in the success of the overall company. I thought that was interesting, and then later saw the story in The New York Times that came out yesterday about KKR, which is a giant private equity firm. It’s sort of piloting this project to increase worker ownership of the companies that they own. So let me just read from the New York Times, so they were talking about a woman who was working sort of on her own in this group called Project Equity, a nonprofit that helps small businesses transition to worker ownership, but it was slow going with each transaction requiring customized assistance. Then Miss Miller, Anna-Lisa Miller came across an investor presentation from a different universe, KKR, one of the world’s largest private equity firms. “In it, KKR executive, Pete Stavros discussed a model he’d been developing to provide employees with an equity stake in companies that purchase, so the workers would reap some benefits if it was flipped for profit. When all goes according to plan, KKR doesn’t give up a penny of profit, since newly motivated workers benefit the company’s bottom line, elevating the eventual sale price by more than what KKR gives up.” And so now these two groups are working together, and they’ve created this new company or new nonprofit to kind of see if this can work at scale, this idea of giving employees more ownership of these companies without costing private equity anything. And I think that is interesting. If it works, it could really, especially with a company as big as KKR, it could really change the way some of these you know, private equity takeovers occur, which famously really hurt workers. I’m thinking Toys “R” Us is the one that jumps to mind. So anyway, this makes me smile because it shows that businesses are experimenting with different models that are more inclusive of workers, and that it’s being motivated by their own profit interests, which seems to be one of the few ways that these changes actually happen.

Kai Ryssdal 

That is the only way these changes happen. That is the only way. That and regulation, I suppose. Anyway. Okay, we’re done for today. Tomorrow’s Deep Dive is Boeing and what’s going on there and what it might mean. I think it’s me and Nova tomorrow. It’s about commercial aviation, manufacturing in this country, all of that stuff. It’s a big story.

Kimberly Adams 

Yeah, indeed. And until then, keep those comments and questions coming. You can leave a message for us at 508-U-B-Smart, or you can email us at makemesmart@marketplace.org.

Kai Ryssdal 

Make Me Smart is produced by Courtney Bergsieker. Today’s program was engineered by Charlton Thorp. Ellen Rolfes writes our newsletter. Our intern is Thalia Menchaca.

Kimberly Adams 

Marissa Cabrera is our senior producer. Bridget Bodnar is the director of podcasts, and Francesca Levy is the Executive Director of Digital.

Kai Ryssdal 

Alright, now I have to figure out my freaking password.

Kimberly Adams 

I’ve heard that. I’ll give you some recommendations for some password managers people have suggested to me.

Kai Ryssdal 

Yeah, I know. I need to get on that train. I have not yet done that.

Kimberly Adams 

Yeah, I haven’t done it, but I should.

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