Exploitation of Workers

Whatever one’s views on the use of animal products, the fact is that very few would agreeably participate in the professions of confining or killing, nor the processing of carcasses that is necessary for the bodies of other animals to go from farm or feedlot to table. No matter one’s ethical stance on using other animals for our purposes, most find the actual act of killing (not to mention dismemberment) to be abhorrent, along with the sights and smells of blood, entrails, severed tissue, and organs. Generally, killing by humans of otherwise healthy animals is seen as sociopathic, and is associated with perpetrators of other kinds of violence.

With some of the highest rates of workplace injury and fatality, while paying wages below poverty level, in an unpleasant and violent occupation with high turnover and low job security, one can’t help but wonder, who would be willing to work in these jobs?

The animal agriculture industry is primarily staffed by members of the most vulnerable sector of the workforce who have poor prospects of employment elsewhere: the unskilled, often unschooled and illiterate, people of color, migrant workers and residents of rural communities dominated by large-scale farming. Many are immigrants and resettled refugees and/or have undocumented status. They are a demographic that is easy to exploit, for whom unfamiliarity of language and risk of deportation leave them unable to report safety and labor violations, and therefore at the mercy of supervisors pushing longer hours, faster line speeds and harsher conditions.

As a result, agencies like Nebraska Appleseed, Southern Poverty Law Center and over a dozen labor rights groups have put pressure on OSHA (The Occupational Safety and Health Administration) and the US Department of Labor, not only to protect workers unable to file a lawsuit against hazardous working conditions (or even respond to an employer’s retaliation in response to complaints of safety hazards or other abusive working conditions) but also to slow down the line whose speed continues to increase, threatening workers’ safety and making it difficult to uphold even the most lax standards of slaughterhouse welfare.

Whether on the farms which raise the animals we use, or in the factories that slaughter, butcher and package them, there are unique dangers that all animal production workers face. These include exposure to poisonous gases from animal waste “lagoons” and pathogenic diseases intrinsic to animal production, repetitive motion injuries and chronic physical ailments, all the way to accidents involving the use of machinery that is designed to cut through flesh running at higher and higher speeds to meet higher and higher quotas. On top of all that, there is also the loss of human dignity for those with no choice but to resort to wearing diapers in order to cope with the growing practice of being denied bathroom breaks to avoid slowing down line speeds.

Very few occupations require this degree of exposure to hazardous working conditions, and most of those are regulated in ways that animal agriculture has successfully avoided. The Human Rights Watch found that “Meat and poultry industry employers set up the workplaces and practices that create these dangers, but they treat the resulting mayhem as a normal, natural part of the production process, not as what it is–repeated violations of international human rights standards.”

With 99% of animal products coming from CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) also known as factory farms, methods of feeding, watering and waste management present perilous conditions for workers. Heavy equipment accidents, risks of electrocution, and injuries caused by the anarchy of forcing large animals to live in cramped, unnatural conditions pose threats to life and limb.

Toxic substances can also wreak havoc on workers’ bodies. According to one contamination study, data indicates that the pollution strength of raw manure is 160 times greater than raw municipal sewage. Pathogens such as campylobacter, e.coli, listeria and salmonella, harmful chemicals, and toxic gases are a daily exposure for animal agriculture workers. Respiratory problems, infections, miscarriage and birth defects, and even the development of brain damage and neurological problems have been linked to exposure to the toxic chemicals found in animal waste. Hydrogen sulfide, a deadly gas created when manure decomposes, is known to cause accidental death and drowning from loss of consciousness, when maintenance is needed on the manure pits that collect the many tons of animal waste beneath the slatted floors of animal confinement barns.

Regardless of whether they originate from a CAFO or a small farm, however, all animals sold to the public must be killed by (and their bodies processed by) a slaughterhouse, where exploited workers find themselves in harm’s way, with very few rights.

Slaughterhouse and processing employees often suffer from long term injuries, and chronic physical ailments called musculoskeletal disorders, or MSDs (repetitive motion injuries like carpal tunnel syndrome) as they are expected to do detailed and strenuous work in frigid environments, at high speeds to keep up with line movement that sees them cutting, lifting, separating and moving thousands of animals every day. The effects of these injuries can be debilitating, causing long term pain, numbness, and both physical and psychological distress.

Most large slaughterhouses and processing plants have their own medical staff on site to assess and treat workplace injuries, and diagnoses are commonly made that are intended to absolve the employer from responsibility. Getting second opinions requires making claims in court, hiring expensive legal counsel and putting oneself in the line of scrutiny; an absolute impossibility for undocumented workers needing to be shielded from exposure to law enforcement and the legal system.

In many industries where these types of injuries are common, there is a standard of compensation for permanent injuries caused by job tasks, but in a vulnerable workforce, the unspoken threat of being fired for reporting injuries keeps many working through the intense pain, until they are eventually fired anyway for being unable to keep up with line speeds. In rural communities with one large employer like a slaughterhouse or processing plant, whole families can be employed by the same corporation. Complaints about working conditions or attempts to report abuses and injuries can be devastating for households of wage earners when supervisors retaliate by firing friends and family members. This type of intimidation leads to a high incidence of unreported injuries, and lack of protection by labor laws, in an industry that already has one of the highest rates of workplace injury.

Some of the dangers and abuse experienced by animal agriculture workers are yet unknown to the public and not well documented. During a truly horrifying case in 2007, workers in a Minnesota “pork” processing plant began to report neurological symptoms including weakness, fatigue, pain, numbness, and tingling in their extremities. These workers had participated in a procedure to remove the brains of pigs using compressed air. The resulting syndrome was called Polyradiculoneneuropathy: a painful nerve disorder that attacks the peripheral nerves and the spine nerve roots, and was theorized to be an autoimmune reaction to aerosolized porcine neural tissue. Since that diagnosis, similar cases have been found in other processing plants elsewhere in the US, with some workers suffering from permanent conditions, including one who lost her ability to walk.

In addition to the very real physical burden this industry places on the individuals who work within it, the psychological toll of working with individuals who are violently killed or about to be killed cannot be underestimated. It stands to reason that the workers tasked with long shifts of slaughtering and dismembering other animals are subject to mental illnesses that not only affect their work lives but also follow them home, resulting in high rates of substance abuse, violence toward others, crippling depression and extreme anxiety.

Communities are put at risk, as crime rates have been seen to rise with the existence of a slaughterhouse employer in the area, and research has pointed out a correlation between towns with slaughterhouses and higher rates of domestic violence and violent crimes, including murder and rape. Counties that contain slaughterhouses have four times the national average of violent arrest, with significantly higher rates of alcoholism, domestic abuse, child abuse and suicide.

Perpetration Induced Traumatic Stress Disorder (PITS) has been found to occur when the symptoms of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are caused by an act or acts of killing or similar horrific violence and include intrusive imagery (dreams, flashbacks, nightmares, unwanted thoughts) paranoia and explosive outbursts of anger. While we normally think of PTSD and trauma responses as the result of either being a victim or witnessing an incident of torture or violence, slaughterhouse workers, who might kill hundreds or even thousands of sentient, feeling individuals in a single day, are subject to a similar syndrome as a result of the repetitive trauma in which they themselves are the “perpetrators.”

Originally studied in combat veterans, PITS symptoms have been observed both by clinicians and through the course of personal anecdotes from former slaughterhouse workers. Ed Van Winkle, a former “hog-sticker” was quoted in the Tyson Foods Annual Shareholder meeting, saying “The worst thing, worse than the physical danger, 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.”

In order to eliminate the misery and trauma to both nonhuman and human victims of animal agriculture, we have to attack the cause rather than the symptom. Workers are the pawns of industries that make money on the products we’ve convinced ourselves we can’t live without, but it’s our own consumption that perpetuates this abusive power dynamic. In order to see real change for those exploited by this industry, we have to bring about an end to it altogether, and the only way to do that is to eliminate consumer demand for the products it provides.

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