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7 reasons why no one wants to work in the meat industry

People who see animal cruelty in slaughterhouses usually criticize workers for their “atrocious” behavior. This is absolutely inappropriate. They only kill or exploit animals because of the demand for meat, dairy and eggs — and consumers are accountable for that—but the workers are also victims of the system. Here’s why:

1. It’s painful, hard and cold

Slaughter and meatpacking are two activities that happen in work lines. First, workers have to put live animals in a moving line or a specific enclosure for them to be slaughtered. The repetitive movement and the weight of the animals can make this a strenuous process.

Photo: We Animals

When the animals are dead, they are directed to the evisceration and cleaning process, and then to packaging and shipping. Some of these parts are done by machines, others by humans. Moving, cutting and deboning carcasses are arduous tasks: they require fast, precise and repetitive movements, which cause workers to live with constant body pain.

People in the poultry cutting line can do up to 60 movements per minute — during all their working hours! Information from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration of the United States shows that, among beef and pork processing workers, injuries caused by the repetitive movement were nearly seven times that of other private industries. Moreover, it’s not uncommon for them to have to work shifts that are twelve hours long or more, and working for weeks without weekend breaks.

In general, hazards include exposure to high noise levels, dangerous equipment, slippery floors, musculoskeletal disorders and hazardous chemicals (including ammonia). Several workers in meatpacking factories work in refrigerated areas, in which, even if they wear the proper uniform, they often feel cold.

These problems are not isolated cases and don’t happen only for a few minutes a day. They are the standards of this industry, and people have to perform them during the entirety of their workday.

2. People often get mutilated

Since people are handling sharp objects and cutting machines and are obliged to make fast movements because there are animal pieces passing through the work lines, it’s not rare for workers to suffer physical injuries — from superficial cuts to amputations; people can even die.

In the United States, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, every month, at least 17 “severe” incidents involving “hospitalisations, amputations or loss of an eye” are reported in meat plants. For example, an employee had his left arm amputated at the shoulder after it was pulled into the cubing machine during sanitation.

3. It’s emotionally hard

Let’s be honest: most people in the world are not perverse enough to feel at ease seeing animals being slaughtered every day. Having to face this reality and put animals in this position is a big emotional burden for most people that work in slaughterhouses — it’s no wonder this activity has been linked to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental disorders, such as emotional detachment or “blunting,” substance abuse, concentration loss, sleep disturbances, depression, and violent behavior involving these workers.

“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,” said a worker to the newspaper Metro UK.

Photo: We Animals

4. Salaries are very low

A Bloomberg article says that in the US, slaughterhouse workers are paid about half as much as motor vehicle makers, often working under the deplorable conditions described above. This is the reality in all countries.

It’s not a coincidence that the meat industry is struggling to retain workers and the turnover rates are so high. Actually, only people in desperate need of jobs currently accept work in slaughterhouses and meatpacking. This explains why these factories concentrate so many immigrants (mostly undocumented) and people who are extremely vulnerable.

5. There are several cases of slave work

If conditions inside slaughterhouses and the meatpacking industry are terrible, what is there to say about the farms?

In Brazil, a country that is the world’s largest beef trader and that is accountable for 39% of total poultry exports globally, slave workers in cattle ranching have been largely documented and 10,300 people were rescued from 2003 to 2010 from farms that supply major meat processors and sellers around the world, including supermarkets like Walmart, Tesco, Rewe, Lidl, and Aldi and fast food chains such as McDonald’s and Burger King.

The International Labor Organization estimates that 62% of all slave labor cases in Brazil are directly linked to cattle, not to mention the ones related to swine or soy production. Among the human rights violations, authorities found people who were simply not paid, had no access to medical treatment, were not free to come and go, had to drink the same water as the cattle, were being kept in debt bondage by the landowner, and were threatened with guns. There was even one case in which a worker was tortured and branded with an iron used for cattle. Read more about their stories in this CNN article.

Photo: We Animals

Thailand’s seafood industry, the third-largest exporter in the sector globally, sells to major retailers around the world. The industry has been involved in “systematic illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing practices and pervasive, horrific human rights abuses,” says the Human Rights Watch.

“Forced labour is routine. The workers we interviewed described being trafficked onto ships, trapped in jobs they couldn’t leave, with physical abuse, lack of food, long hours, and awful working conditions. The worst thing for many of them was not being paid — the psychological harm and final indignity was the hardest to bear,” said Brad Adams, director of Human Rights Watch in Asia, to The Guardian.

6. Workers are exposed to pathogens

In times of pandemics and the emergence of new diseases coming from animals, it is also important to notice that these workers are especially exposed to biological agents, such as viruses and bacteria, since they are in direct contact with animal bodily fluids and excrement every day. When new illnesses arise, workers are on the front line of contamination.

Photo: Andrew Skowron

7. They are even being forced to work during the pandemics

In many countries, slaughterhouses are being considered an essential activity and remain operating during the Covid-19 crisis. The result? Factories that employ so many people are becoming focal points for the spread of the virus. Actually, a factory called Smithfield, the ninth-largest hog processor in the US, became one of the largest Covid-19 hotspots in the whole country, with at least 644 confirmed cases tied to the facility so far.

“The workforce at Smithfield is made up largely of immigrants and refugees from places like Myanmar, Ethiopia, Nepal, Congo and El Salvador. There are 80 different languages spoken in the plant. Estimates of the mean hourly wage range from $14 to 16 an hour. Those hours are long, the work is gruelling, and standing on a production line often means being less than a foot away from your co-workers on either side,” reported the BBC, which mentioned that other meat processing companies, such as JBS and Tyson Foods, have also had several infected workers, some of whom have died.

These plants rely heavily on an immigrant workforce who often don’t speak the same language, don’t have access to or can’t afford medical care and are afraid to look for help for fear of deportation, which makes the spread of the virus a ticking time bomb. The fact that the companies chose not to stop their operations makes it evident that they don’t care for the workers’ lives.

Slaughterhouse workers are an extremely vulnerable population; they receive some of the lowest wages in the market for a tough job and are exposed to pathogens and other life risks. An industry that shows no respect for animals and the environment is unlikely to do something to spare humans’ lives.

If you don’t want to be a part of this, there is a way out. Our diet can support small, familiar farmers in a fairer and more sustainable system and do no harm to animals or humans. Consider ditching meat, dairy and eggs

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