by Becci Pigeon
As the COVID-19 crisis has continued, some of the biggest outbreaks worldwide have been in slaughterhouses and meat-packing plants, where industry heads have refused to provide proper protective gear and demanded that employees continue to work even while sick. (Check out our recent post about how is this affecting the animals here.) In the U.S. alone, at least 6.500 have contracted the virus as a result, and 20 have died, and yet Trump signed an executive order requiring slaughterhouses and plants to stay open–or reopen if they’ve already closed. Perhaps not surprisingly, rates of COVID-19 infection are 75% higher in rural areas housing large meat-processing plants and slaughterhouses, and the biggest U.S. outbreak to date is in the relatively sparsely populated state of South Dakota, where even as infections spread through Smithfield Foods pig-processing plant, CEO Kevin Sullivan refused to shut down or even take necessary precautions. As is the case in most of the industry, the majority of Smithfield employees are refugees and immigrants and cannot speak English. Desperate to keep their jobs, they continue to clock in, even as they fear they will contract the virus themselves and bring it home to their families. And as the virus runs rampant down in the U.S. plants, Canadian meat-packing employees pleaded for a shutdown, and were ignored. As a result, at least 600 workers in Alberta contracted the virus.
Let’s make one thing clear: few people dream of working in a slaughterhouse. It is dangerous, filthy, depressing work with high rates of PTSD. As in the aforementioned Smithfield Foods plant, the majority of slaughterhouse workers are desperate people–members of disadvantaged communities with few other options, immigrants, refugees. In the UK, 69% of slaughterhouse employees are migrants from the EU. Many are unable to speak English; fewer still are knowledgeable about their rights in a dangerous industry. Some are illiterate. In 2018, the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority warned that criminal groups were trafficking people to the UK to work in the slaughter industry.
Of course, none if this is a problem for the people on top, who often have no compunctions when it comes to exploiting their employees as much as they exploit animals.
It’s a low-paying job, and a perilous one. The Health and Safety Executive described slaughterhouse work as ‘the top level of our concern’ in terms of injury rates. Figures covering the six-year period from April 2011 to March 2017 found that 800 workers suffered serious injuries and 4,500 had to take more than three days off as a result of accidents. Four workers were actually killed, and 78 lost fingers, parts of fingers or limbs.
And killing frightened animals isn’t just dangerous for your physical health–there’s what it does to you mentally.
Ed van Winkle, pig slaughterer, describing disassociation
The worst thing, worse than the physical danger [of on-the-job accidents] is the emotional toll. Pigs down on the kill floor have come up and nuzzled me like a puppy. Two minutes later I had to kill them – beat them to death with a pipe. I can’t care.
Back in 2003, Virgil Butler was a whistleblower at a Tyson plant in rural America. (You can read his excellent blog, the Cyberactivist, here.) He had begun speaking out against the rampant abuse of his fellow employees, and eventually found himself fighting for the rights of the chickens as well. (He died tragically in 2006.)
‘The sheer amount of killing and blood can really get to you after a while. Especially if you can’t just shut down all emotion and turn into a robot zombie of death. You feel like part of a big death machine. [You’re] pretty much treated that way as well. Sometimes weird thoughts will enter your head. It’s just you and the dying chickens. The surreal feelings grow into such a horror of the barbaric nature of your behaviour. You are murdering helpless birds by the thousands (75,000 to 90,000 a night). You are a killer.’Virgil Butler, former Tyson employee, cyberactivist.blogspot.com
As mentioned previously, rates of PTSD for slaughterhouse workers are high, as are rates of a lesser-known form of the illness known as PITS: Perpetration-Induced Traumatic Stress. (It is also linked to many other forms of psychological distress, including depression, anxiety, paranoia, disassociation and more.) Dr. Chi-Chi Obuaya, psychiatrist at the Nightingale mental health hospital in London, has likened it to the experience of child soldiers who are forced to repeatedly commit horrific violence. It should come as no surprise that rates of crime, murder, rape, domestic violence and drug and alcohol abuse, are higher in areas near slaughterhouses. The work is desperate, and as Virgil Butler and many others can testify, it changes you.
So while it’s easy for people to argue that the villains of animal agriculture are the ones on the killing floor of the slaughterhouse, that really isn’t the case. (Whilst doing outreach with video on the streets of Belfast, VKind activists have heard it all!) The fact is that the slaughterhouse workers aren’t necessarily so much villains as they are cogs in the machine fueled largely not by remorseless sadists but consumers.
So who is really responsible for what happens at slaughterhouses? The answer is easy: it’s the people who eat animals and their byproducts and therefore pay for all of this to continue. The best and only way to stop it is to go vegan.
The meat industry is one of suffering, exploitation and violence: for the animals, for the workers and their communities and for the environment. As Dr. Melanie Joy and many others have said, all oppression is interconnected, and by necessity our struggle for a just world for non-human animals requires that we support a just world for humans as well—and vice versa!
Resources and additional reading:
- Nagesh, Ashitha, Metro, The harrowing psychological toll of slaughterhouse work, 31 Dec. 2017
- Newkey-Burden, Chas, The Guardian, There’s a Christmas crisis going on: no one wants to kill your dinner, 19 Nov. 2018
- Milmo, Cahal, Alexandra Heal and Andrew Wasley, iNews, Revealed: Heavy toll of injury suffered by slaughter workers in Britain’s £8bn meat industry, last updated 6 Sept. 2018
- Shepherd, Tory, Newscorp Australia, Slaughterhouse workers are more likely to be violent, study shows, 23 June 2013
- Virgil Butler’s The CyberActivist
- Greenhouse, Steven, The Guardian, Trump is marching meatpacking workers off to their deaths, 30 Apr. 2020
- Garcés, Leah, Common Dreams, COVID-19 Illuminates Our Food System’s Failure to Protect the Most Vulnerable, 6 Apr. 2020
- Nikiforuk, Andrew, The Tyee, Ignoring US Alarms, Alberta Meat Packers Spawned Canada’s Biggest Outbreak, 24 Apr. 2020
- Telford, Taylor and Kimberly Kindy, Washington Post, As they rushed to maintain U.S. meat supply, big processors saw plants become covid-19 hot spots, worker illnesses spike, 25 Apr. 2020
- Lussenhop, Jessica, BBC, Coronavirus at Smithfield pork plant: The untold story of America’s biggest outbreak, 17 Apr. 2020