Slaughterhouse workers: What do they do and are they cruel?


Slaughterhouse workers have some of the most dangerous and psychologically harmful jobs worldwide, often without health benefits or job security. These workers are paid to kill, dismember, and process animals for human consumption on a daily basis. Slaughterhouse workers may be employed in a range of settings, from large corporate-owned facilities to unregulated and rural abattoirs. Thousands of workers are employed globally in slaughterhouses to meet people’s demand for meat and other animal products.


Around 70 billion terrestrial animals are killed for food each year worldwide, and slaughterhouse workers must perform the violent and traumatizing acts of ending these billions of lives. While slaughterhouse workers are often vilified for performing a job that inflicts pain and suffering on animals, the truth is that they are also exploited by the meat industry and work under inhumane conditions for what may be barely liveable wages.


What do you call a slaughterhouse worker?

Slaughterhouse workers may also be called meatpackers, meat workers, abattoir workers, or meat processing workers. Workers perform various jobs, including unloading animals for slaughter, physically moving them into the slaughter line, stunning them with a captive bolt gun or other methods, slitting the throats of animals, and skinning or cutting their bodies apart for further processing. They may work in pig, cow, sheep, goat, chicken, duck, turkey, rabbit, or fish slaughterhouses, or facilities that kill other species of animals.


What do slaughterhouse workers do?

In large industrial slaughterhouses, animals move through an automated assembly line that starts with stunning and killing and ends with the animal being cut apart, washed, and sent on for packaging and further processing. In some parts of the world and in most large slaughterhouses, machines do significant portions of the work, like plucking the feathers off chickens or eviscerating cows.


But even in heavily automated slaughterhouses, many jobs are still done by people. Workers in slaughterhouses generally remain at just one station, performing the same task over and over for hours. For example, in a chicken slaughterhouse some workers may unload chickens from crates and hang them upside down in shackles all day long, while others farther down the line cut and debone the carcasses. Workers perform the same repetitive actions thousands of times during one shift. Even at smaller nonautomated slaughterhouses, workers repeatedly perform the actions associated with their assigned duties.


What are conditions like for slaughterhouse workers?

Slaughterhouse work is one of the most dangerous and physically challenging jobs worldwide. Workers are constantly subjected to unsafe and harmful conditions, including long working hours, no health benefits or protections if they become injured, and little job security.


In the global north, slaughterhouse workers are often from vulnerable populations like immigrants and women. These populations are not only exploited economically by the meat industry, but they are also deemed easily replaceable if they become sick or injured. Slaughterhouse workers are also routinely exposed to infectious diseases and biological pathogens, noise, and noxious odors.


Health and safety hazards

Workers must handle sharp blades and dangerous equipment in hazardous and unhygienic conditions. Blood and viscera from slain animals coat the floors, equipment, and workers, making slips, falls, amputations and other serious injuries more likely. In the United States, amputations occur in workers an average of twice weekly, including loss of hands, fingers, and eyes. They also experience burns, concussions, and broken bones.


Workers are exposed to bacterial and viral diseases through contact with animal blood, feces, other bodily fluids, and viscera. In a survey of slaughterhouse workers in western Kenya, 84% were positive for antibodies to Toxoplasma gondii, a protozoan parasite that can cause damage to the brains, eyes, and internal organs of people.


Other studies have shown that slaughterhouse workers have a higher prevalence of zoonotic diseases (those spread from animals to humans) like brucellosis, anthrax, Rift Valley fever, and leptospirosis — all of which can cause serious illness. Gastrointestinal inflammation and upset has been reported by slaughterhouse workers, and a study of workers in Italy demonstrated a connection between bacterial infection with Campylobacter jejuni and Campylobacter pylori acquired by handling animal carcasses, and gastritis and precancerous lesions.


In rabbit slaughterhouses in China, over 46% of workers tested positive for hepatitis E, and in Nigeria, multidrug-resistant E. coli was detected in 50% of the population tested. This corroborated other findings of the high prevalence of drug-resistant E. coli worldwide where people work in proximity to farmed animals, such as from Vietnamese chicken farms.


Line speed

Workers face unrealistic demands for speed that increase the risk of injury. Automated slaughter lines process thousands of animals per day. In Germany and Brazil, slaughter lines reach speeds of up to 200 beats per minute (BPM), or more than 10,000 chickens per hour. Songs that are 200 BPM, like this one, can give an idea of what the pace is like for workers at this speed. Performing hazardous work in slick conditions at these ridiculous speeds makes workers vulnerable to traumatic injuries like lacerations and amputations.


The speed of the slaughter line places pressure on workers to keep up and often prevents them from taking breaks to relieve themselves, hydrate, or eat. A 2016 Oxfam report about the poultry industry in the United States documented workers being denied bathroom breaks, told to eat and drink less so they wouldn’t have to leave the slaughter line, and wearing diapers to avoid soiling themselves. Many of these workers felt they had few options for employment and were afraid to speak up and risk losing their jobs.


Long hours and repetitive stress

According to Oxfam, workers may perform the same forceful, repetitive motions up to 20,000 times in one shift with few or no breaks or recovery. This places immense strain on bones, muscles, tendons, ligaments, and nerves. In Brazil, workers in cattle slaughterhouses report high levels of back pain, and musculoskeletal injuries are prevalent in poultry slaughterhouse workers. Nerve injuries are also common — 76% of workers at a facility in the state of Maryland in the United States reported nerve abnormalities in the hands and fingers.


Nature of the work

Slaughterhouse work takes a physical and psychological toll. Not only do workers have to perform their duties in unsafe and inhumane conditions, but they are also often made to feel worthless and ashamed. One slaughterhouse worker recounts in the Oxfam report that she was frequently mocked by supervisors and felt that she “had no worth” and no opportunity to speak up about conditions.


This work is also difficult for workers emotionally. They must deal with killing frightened animals on a daily basis. Workers witness animals fighting for their lives, inadequately stunned, being boiled alive, or killed in other horrific ways. Often they are the perpetrators of injuries and abuse, yet they may feel that if they appeal in any way or protest about conditions, they will risk losing their livelihoods. The upsetting and traumatizing nature of their work can cause stress, depression, and anxiety, and lead workers to emotionally detach, self-medicate, or express their feelings through violence or workplace sabotage.


Quality of life

When workers are forced to repeatedly perform traumatizing and physically harmful actions without breaks and are devalued and considered disposable by the companies they work for, this can affect their quality of life. Undocumented workers or members of other vulnerable populations may feel hopelessly trapped and unable to ask for better conditions for fear of being deported or fired. Women workers have faced sexual harassment by supervisors. When workers must spend the majority of their day in miserable and demeaning conditions, this negatively affects their life outside of work as well.


Workers’ rights

In the United States, workers are often prevented from unionizing or organizing to represent their concerns about treatment and working conditions. They are treated as a replaceable workforce with few rights, and large corporations like Tyson, Perdue, Smithfield, and JBS have little accountability or oversight for how they treat their workers. Workers’ rights are also intertwined with social justice issues, as many slaughterhouse workers are from marginalized, immigrant, and POC populations.


Under-reporting injuries

Workers may be afraid to report injuries or encouraged not to report them by supervisors. This can result in inadequate treatment for injuries, which may impact long-term issues in workers like mobility and chronic pain.


This trend was reported in Brazil as early as 2011 in the documentary “Flesh and Bone,” in which one worker shared, “I was even afraid of getting fired. Because I knew that when people began to take time off work because of health problems, especially for problems related to arms, joints, or spine, they were fired. I was alone and had to work to sustain the children…”. Another worker who suffered a serious arm injury said, “I had to learn to work again, hold it in a different way to be able to work in order to make a normal day. It is the only profession I learned… When you have no choice, you have to stay on what you know.”


Why are slaughterhouse workers cruel?

Most slaughterhouse workers are not inherently cruel, but they are forced to routinely perform cruel acts toward animals. Many slaughterhouse workers would not choose to work in these conditions, but feel they have no other options to support themselves and their families. To deal with the actions they have to perform daily, slaughterhouse workers may develop cognitive dissonance as a way to deal with the mental discomfort of killing and causing trauma and suffering in animals.


Do slaughterhouse workers get PTSD?

Slaughterhouse work has been associated with many negative effects on mental health, and workers have higher levels of depression and anxiety than other professions. Workers in Brazil report cognitive impairments, stress, and difficulty sleeping.


Slaughterhouse workers can develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from repeated exposure to trauma and death. They may develop a form of PTSD called perpetration-induced traumatic stress, which develops when the person is instrumental in creating the trauma. This condition may result in severe effects on the individual, including substance abuse, enhanced anxiety, nightmares, and depression.


Are slaughterhouse workers associated with domestic violence?

Studies have shown that slaughterhouse workers experience higher levels of anger and hostility, and have also found associations with higher levels of general arrests, rape arrests, and sexual crimes, but no significant connection between slaughterhouse work and assault or murder. Correlations between domestic violence and slaughterhouse employment have been inconsistent, with some studies reporting an increase in domestic partner violence.


Stories from slaughterhouse workers

Slaughterhouse workers experience a number of serious physical and mental health effects from the violent and exploitative nature of their jobs, which is compounded by the poor treatment they receive at the hands of the companies they work for.


There are many first-person accounts from slaughterhouse workers telling of how they were fired after experiencing debilitating injuries. A former poultry slaughterhouse worker named Roberto who suffered a permanent disability told Oxfam, “I walk from one place to another looking to see what I can do, and where they will accept me this way. … I don’t have a permanent job, and this generates many problems because I cannot afford an apartment, I cannot pay my bills, I cannot buy food.”


Other stories tell of the psychological toll of slaughterhouse work. In 2020, a former slaughterhouse worker told the BBC about an encounter with another employee, “A few years into my time at the abattoir, a colleague started making flippant comments about ‘not being here in six months’... I took him into a side room and asked him what he meant, and he broke down. He admitted that he was plagued by suicidal thoughts, that he didn't feel like he could cope any more, and that he needed help — but he begged me not to tell our bosses.”


Conclusion

People often take jobs in slaughterhouses because they have few other options and need to support themselves and their families. Slaughter is an essential part of the meat industry, which perpetuates cruelty against both animals and humans. Instead of vilifying or blaming workers in slaughterhouses, it is crucial to examine the role that dietary choices play in supporting the meat industry’s exploitation of both animals and workers. When meat and other animal products are purchased, this actively sustains an industry that causes widespread suffering. Adopting a plant-based diet can help both animals and workers by no longer supporting the abusive animal agricultural industry.