Slaughterhouse Abuse Starts with Worker Abuse

US slaughterhouses have become infamous as havens of animal abuse, exposed by numerous animal welfare organisations brave enough to go undercover (even in the face of ag-gag laws) to document workers kicking, hitting, and beating animals, mocking them, and participating in acts of extreme brutality. Sending animals to their death in a state of terror and misery is something these groups argue should be a huge concern for anyone who eats meat in the US, as animal welfare laws should include animal abuse — many states do in fact explicitly outlaw abuses like these and if caught and prosecuted, slaughterhouses and workers may pay fines and face other penalties.

The thing is, though, that these behaviours run deeper, and their roots should be fully explored if people genuinely want them to stop. Animal rights organisations tend to focus, not surprisingly, on animals, and they point to the fact that animals, particularly those used as meat, have been treated as objects for centuries — that scientists used to debate whether they could experience pain like humans did, that people still argue over whether they have emotions. In the context of that line of thinking, they say, it’s not surprising to see people abusing animals and providing them with brutal, unpleasant deaths.

What they ignore, however, is that many of those abusive workers are also being abused: by their employers. This doesn’t justify their behaviour in the least, of course, but it does highlight something important that needs to be discussed, and that is the chain of abuse that works its way through the food system, also wrapping itself back on workers, many of whom are undocumented immigrants engaging in filthy, dangerous, appalling work that no one else is willing to do, and they’re desperate for, even if it comes with unsafe conditions, below-minimum wage, and other unacceptable riders.

The food industry abuses people because it knows it can get away with it. While the attention of the nation and much of the progressive community is rightly gripped by abuse of slaughterhouse animals, they’re less captivated by the plight of workers enduring terrible conditions in slaughterhouses, packing plants, and fields. Workers are tricked into coming to the US, forced to hand over their documents, compelled to live in disgusting, substandard housing without water and adequate toilet facilities. They eat garbage and can’t access health care. They’re threatened by turns with deportation and firing to keep them complacent, and to force them to stay at work without complaint even if they want to protest unfair conditions or move on to better jobs.

These workers are the backbone of the US. They’re the ones who ensure that we can eat, with their blood and suffering going into most plates around the country on a daily basis. People abused by their employers with long hours, unsafe conditions, and other unfair treatment have less to lose, but more than that, they’re also less careful in their work. They have no incentive to do otherwise — no compassion, kindness, or respect from their employers. No promise of working their way up to better positions within the hierarchy. No chance of a job turning out to be anything more than an exploitative nightmare.

It’s not fair, or kind, or reasonable to take out frustration and rage on animals, but given the conditions slaughterhouse employees endure, I can see why some of them do it. Ample studies have shown how stress, tension, and misery contribute to abusive behaviours — which, again,¬†never¬†excuses them — and slaughterhouse workers definitely experience all of these things. Those fighting abuse of animals in slaughterhouse environments might want to look deeper into the lives of the workers who are doing it, rather than dismissing them simply as cruel, ignorant hicks. Perhaps they are sending a message, of sorts, with their behaviours.

Contrast the difference in the treatment of animals between industrial slaughterhouses and small, independently-owned companies, especially those owned by families. Animals are treated with respect in these settings. They’re moved through without hurry, and they’re given precise, humane, dignified deaths. Mobile butchers move around their communities to provide USDA-approved slaughtering on site to reduce stress for the animals, while others provide centralised slaughterhouse locations to limit transport time and the accompanying logistics and animal anxiety.

They treat animals with respect as living beings and food sources. It’s not because they’re inherently better people, or because they’re ‘liberal,’ or because they’re hipsters, because some of these self-same facilities are run by die-hard Republicans and hicks and all the rest. They treat their animals with respect because they treat their workers with respect (including immigrant workers, some of whom may be undocumented), and because they cultivate an atmosphere of respect and focus on the job, making it clear that animal abuse won’t be tolerated both through their policies and through their treatment of workers.

Those who want animal abuse to stop (and I am one of them) certainly shouldn’t stop campaigning for an end to the abuse of animals raised for food or food products like milk. But it’s important to remember the workers — both as a separate issue to campaign on, and as something that very much ties in to animal abuse. Workers who aren’t treated fairly are victims of abuse too, and while they may do monstrous things, that doesn’t necessarily make them monsters. They’re trapped within a larger framework of cruelty and misery that must be dismantled. You want animal abuse to stop? You might actually want to start with tackling worker abuse.