Often, vegans and animal advocates accuse and blame slaughterhouse workers for being part of the carnist system, without thinking about the circumstances that led them to their jobs, and the factors that keep them there.

Each year, more than 56 billion land animals and more than 2 trillion fish are killed for food. A large portion of the workers doing the dirty jobs is made up of people who are intimidated, coerced, or trafficked into doing this work. Although slavery is illegal everywhere, surprisingly today there are more slaves than ever: 21 to 38 million people, a quarter of which are children. Slavery is an “industry” of 150 billion dollars.

Slaughterhouse workers are mainly immigrants or other people of low social status with few employment options and little power to protest work conditions. A significant percentage of them are undocumented immigrants, who work under the constant threat of deportation from their employers, who routinely underpay them and demand that they work overtime.

There are many different departments in large slaughterhouses. Some workers kill the animals, others immobilize them while they bleed out, others are dismembering the bodies, and so on. Because of the huge demand for meat, all of this has to happen at an extremely fast pace. The workers are forced to kill as many animals as possible as quickly as possible, which results in many accidents, makes following humane slaughter recommendations impossible, and can lead to contamination and compromised food safety.

Most facilities operate almost 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, killing and processing hundreds or even thousands of animals every hour. As one worker reported, the production and processing line moves so fast that there is not even time to sharpen knives. Using dull knives requires that the workers use more force, which causes many more accidents and worker injuries to occur.

The combination of many hours of work and repetitive manual movement also leads directly to increased risk of injury. Workers suffer from chronic pain in their hands, wrists, arms, shoulders, and back, not to mention the tremendous psychological wear. The psychological trauma that many endure in this workplace should not be underestimated, and working in a slaughterhouse is associated with a variety of mental health conditions, including PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder). It has also been linked to an increase in crime rates among workers, including higher incidents of domestic violence, as well as alcohol and drug abuse. One study found that the presence of a slaughterhouse in a community corresponded to an increase of 166% in rape arrests. This study also found an increase in other crimes as well, but rape stood out as an especially significant increase.

Most workers are in constant state of physical and mental pain because of the inhumane nature of their work. They feel insignificant and undervalued, as their bosses are oppressive and constantly remind them that they can easily replace them. In the case of undocumented workers, the constant threat of deportation creates additional anxiety and agony.

The constant stress that the workers endure also impacts their life outside work. Life with chronic pain and constant grief affects each aspect of a person’s life. Some of the activities that would normally bring someone great pleasure, such as playing with their children, may be prevented by injuries that take place at their workplace.

Before you wonder what kind of person would work in a slaughterhouse, it is better to ask yourself who profits off of exploiting them, and who pays for the products they create.

Some testimonies from slaughterhouse workers, collected by Human Rights Watch:

“I worked in casing for five years pulling guts. In 2003 I was pulling hard when I felt a sharp pain in my shoulder. I went to the plant clinic. They gave me a heating pad and a muscle rub. I went off the line for two days on light duty, picking up meat off the floor in the department. It wasn’t getting any better so I went to the office and asked for time off to let it heal. They told me it was not work-related and I couldn’t have time off. I just worked with the pain because I couldn’t afford to take off and they would fire me for absenteeism.  I just couldn’t take the pain anymore. Three times I slipped and fell on the greasy floor. The first time I went to the clinic, and they told me I just hurt my pride and to go back to work. The last time I fell, the clinic sent me back to work again. A few days later I woke up in the middle of the night and I couldn’t move. I called the rescue squad and they took me to the hospital. The doctor there took x-rays and told me I had a herniated disc. I was out for two weeks. …The supervisors don’t do anything about injuries, they get angry at workers who get injured. My work was always bending and turning and lifting. … When I called my supervisor about a workers’ comp claim, she told me it was useless because I didn’t report an injury at work when it happened. She told me I would lose the case. So, I didn’t claim workers’ comp because I’m afraid they will fire me and cut off my medical insurance.

“I worked on the spiral hams line in the conversion department. In 2002 the side of my face got a nerve reaction. It felt like it was paralyzed. The nerve specialist told me it was a reaction to the cold work area and gave me a note saying I should move to a warmer area. When I went to Human Resources they told me I was a high risk and I was terminated. I never got paid for the time I was out, and I never got workers’ compensation. My unemployment compensation has run out and I have no income at this time.”

“I worked in a processing plant for four months. I was on a bagging machine when the bags got stuck. The only way to fix it is with the machine still running. My hand got caught in the machine. Four fingers got torn up. The foreman took me to the Harrison Hospital for treatment. The hospital is two hours away but they make us go there because that’s where the company doctors are. They just do what the company tells them. I was there until 3:00. My hand was killing me, but the doctor said I could work. They made me sign a form saying I could not get my own medical records without company permission. The foreman told me to come back to work that night using one hand. I tried it for a few days but the pain was intense… The next day the personnel manager called me in and told me I was fired because of my bad hand. I applied for workers’ compensation. The company said I had to see their doctor at the Harrison Hospital two hours away to keep checking on me. But I didn’t have a car, I couldn’t always get there, so the company said I was negligent and they won’t pay for any therapy by my doctor here in town. My hand is useless. I can’t grip, so I can’t work. All the work is hard work, even light duty. Not just chicken work. Any work. I’m still trying to get workers’ compensation. In the meantime, my wife is supporting me. If she gets hurt I don’t know what I’ll do.”

After reading these testimonials, what are your feelings towards slaughterhouse workers? I hope that all this information encourages you to realize that we need to focus on fighting capitalism and large corporations, instead of blaming the powerless people who are also victims of a violent system, being used for profit just as non-human animals are.

I would also like to remind you that investing energy and time solely into turning people vegan doesn’t result in any fewer animals being killed (read more on this here). No matter how great your speech is and how many people you influence, no fewer animals will be killed for food than were last year, as long as you don’t also advocate against capitalism and start addressing larger institutions. Because capitalism finds new targets to sell meat & dairy which results to more animals being exploited / abused / killed each year. Thus, slaughterhouse workers would not have to kill less animals because your spouce / friend / aunt went vegan. On the contrary.

So, if you care about humans too, it may be time to look at the bigger picture. What do you prefer? To live in a  vegan bubble, where a majority of vegan products are produced by companies who also exploit animals, or the end of all kinds of oppression, empty all the cages and fight speciesism for real?

Elisabeth Dimitras

Editing: Dylan Forest

First published here.