Why Human Rights Advocates Should Ditch Meat

May 2, 2019

Slaughterhouses don’t just exploit animals. They exploit millions of slaughterhouse workers and their local communities.

Why Human Rights Advocates Should Ditch Meat

Slaughterhouses don’t just exploit animals. They exploit millions of slaughterhouse workers and their local communities.

While human rights advocates are rightly concerned with the abuse of undocumented immigrants at the border, they often ignore far more severe and consistent abuses against undocumented workers in the meat industry.

Slaughterhouse workers are often forced into abusive and life-threatening employment conditions to keep the cost of meat production low and profits high. Even setting aside violence against animals, slaughterhouses are responsible for egregious union-busting, psychological abuse, and horrid community impacts.

When a consumer buys meat, they are paying someone else to do the dirty work of slaughter for them. By outsourcing slaughter to others, people may feel less guilty but the end result is the same. Consumers, and everyone concerned about human rights, are responsible for the suffering their food choices cause workers.

Slaughterhouse managers purposely employ a largely undocumented, immigrant workforce to take advantage of their legal, social, and economic vulnerabilities. Paying unfair wages, the industry preys on an abundance of low-skill labor. Employees are treated as disposable by their supervisors who can fire them for any attempt to bargain for better wages or conditions. A 2005 Human Rights Watch report called the industry “the most abusive in America” and found that most slaughterhouse workers do not belong to a union, demonstrating the abusive power of this profit-driven industry over its undocumented workforce.

There are also significant concerns about workers’ mental health. In Animals as Food: (re)connecting Production, Processing, Consumption, and Impacts, sociologist Amy J. Fitzgerald details how slaughterhouse work causes psychological damage, which can lead to substance abuse disorders. Workers spend the majority of their waking hours slaughtering or dismembering farmed animals, which desensitizes them to witnessing and perpetuating violence.

A Yale Global Health Review article observes that workers’ desensitization may also be explained by the psychological coping mechanism “doubling,” which occurs when an individual creates dual selves, one good and one bad, in order to reconcile who they want to be around their family and friends. The article points out that the use of this coping mechanism arises from enduring  “morally dubious employment.” Predictably, doubling is a source of stress, since it can be challenging to mentally sustain a “good” moral character while one’s livelihood depends on working in a slaughterhouse.

Significant social impacts have been discovered in communities near slaughterhouses, owing to the desensitization and trauma men suffer killing thousands of animals each day. The presence of slaughterhouses is highly correlated with increased rates of violent crime, including domestic violence, child abuse, and burglaries. A recent study examined the correlation between slaughterhouse work and “rape and family violence.” Controlling for variables, such as poverty rates, international migration, workers’ demographic characteristics, the study found that “slaughterhouse employment is a significant predictor of both arrest and report rate[s]….[and] has significant effects on arrests for rape and arrests for sex offenses.”

The aforementioned Human Rights Watch report also highlights that slaughtering and processing tens of thousands of animals in a single day causes workers horrendous injuries. Amid the fast-paced, hazardous work environment, accidents occur more than twice the rate of other manufacturing jobs, according to a 2005 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO). Poultry workers, in particular,  are 14 times more likely “to suffer debilitating injuries stemming from repetitive trauma than other workers in all private industries.”

The unrelenting speed of the disassembly line compromises workers’ physical safety, and it is the most dangerous industry job in America, according to the GAO report. In the U.S., 266 chickens are slaughtered per second, and 23 million chickens are killed every day, according to David J. Wolfson and Mariann Sullivan. Workers disproportionately suffer from musculoskeletal injuries from repetitive motions and struggling animals, imposing life-altering injuries to hands, ears, shoulders and other body parts.

Line workers responsible for processing chickens make more than “20,000 repetitive hard cuts in a day’s work.” The magnitude of thousands of repetitive actions takes a serious toll on a worker’s body and mind. A 2016 Oxfam report even revealed that Tyson poultry workers were forced to wear diapers on the job because they were given too few bathroom breaks. While Tyson has claimed to solve the problem, how can we be sure that these abuses won’t resurface when human rights advocates pay so little attention to their food choices?

Slaughterhouses don’t just exploit animals. They exploit workers and their local communities. If we want to strengthen our commitment to justice as a society, we cannot forget the 500,000 slaughterhouse workers exploited by our food system that continue paying for this abuse. While employment for undocumented workers is exploitative across many industries, the violence inherent to slaughter imposes a psychological and physical trauma our society should not tolerate.

Zoe Rosenberger and James Davis


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