In the industry of animal agriculture, there is a step in the middle of “farm to table” that many of us don’t like to think about. One of the forgotten victims of the meat-packing industry is the workers it employs. Today, US slaughterhouses employ over half a million people in the United States (Slaughterhouse). It is not a job many people want to do. It has been observed that the industry has targeted vulnerable immigrants to join their workforce, because they will often put up with conditions that Americans wouldn’t. This is an industry where the corporations basically set the rules and the government agencies follow their lead (Slaughterhouse).
Slaughterhouse workers are usually trained to do one specific portion of the process. There are many different steps involved in the processing of an animal. In a poultry processing plant, workers go to farms at night to catch thousands of chickens and put them in transport boxes, drivers transport them to the plant, and more workers unload the boxes and deliver them to the kill floor. Once the animals arrive at the slaughterhouse, workers hang the animals upside down, by their feet, so they can go down the processing line. There is a worker who slits any animals’ throats that the machine’s blade missed, and once they are pried apart by the machines, they are sent down a row of workers who debone the carcasses. Unlike chicken slaughter, slaughter of other animals is usually carried out manually by workers. Most pig slaughterhouses in the United States use CO2 gas to render the animals unconscious before slaughter. For this method of stunning, workers guide the animals into chambers in small groups. The machine automatically rotates and lowers the animals into increasing concentrations of CO2. Other stunning methods include workers stunning the animal with a bolt gun or a strong electrical current to the head. After stunning, they hang the animal on the processing line by a foot and slit their throat.
Their work is dismal and so are their paychecks. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for a slaughterhouse worker is $13.23 per hour. Many workers struggle to live above the poverty line and provide for their families. Most of them are illiterate, uneducated, or unable to speak English. Virgil Butler, a former Tyson employee, explained how some of his colleagues were unable to even fill out a job application by themselves (Nagesh). These people usually feel like they have no other options available.
Slaughterhouses are commonly placed in low income communities. Workers in this industry are predominately people of color. The industry has been known to target and actively recruit vulnerable groups of people.
Case Farms is a poultry processing company with four different locations: Canton and Winesburg, in Ohio and Morganton and Dudley, in North Carolina. This company has been actively recruiting refugees for decades. In 1989, one of their human resource managers, Norman Beecher, heard about a church in Indiantown, Florida aiding refugees of the Guatemalan Civil War. So, he drove down to Indiantown, Florida and brought up a van full of Guatemalan refugees. His target on refugees over other immigrants was extremely calculated. Beecher was quoted saying “I didn’t want [Mexicans]. Mexicans will go back home at Christmas time. You’re going to lose them for six weeks. And in the poultry business you can’t afford that. You just can’t do it. But Guatemalans can’t go back home. They’re here as political refugees. If they go back home, they get shot” (Grabell). After Case Farms’ employees began to find their voice, the company would find a new vulnerable group to prey on. “For a time, after the Guatemalan workers began to organize, Case Farms recruited Burmese refugees. Then it turned to ethnic Nepalis expelled from Bhutan, who today make up nearly thirty-five percent of the company’s employees in Ohio” (Grabell). Although this is one specific case, there is evidence that this is not an isolated issue, but an issue that spreads throughout the industry. Thirty-eight percent of slaughterhouse workers were born outside of the US. Debbie Berkowitz, Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) former senior policy advisor stated “It’s an industry that targets the most vulnerable group of workers and brings them in. And when one group gets too powerful and stand up for their rights they figure out who’s even more vulnerable and move them in” (Grabell).
Automated machines have taken over any demand for highly skilled workers, so their workforce is disposable. The employee turnover rate in the industry “often exceeds 100% annually” (Slaughterhouse). Employees are treated as if they are replaceable. This discourages workers from reporting serious issues.
These companies consistently prioritize their profits over their employee’s basic rights. Employees continue to work in unsafe or uncomfortable conditions in fear of being reprimanded by their supervisors. A Case Farms employee disclosed that she was disciplined for leaving her line to use the rest room while she was seven months pregnant (Grabell). Some workers have said they wear diapers to work because their supervisors make them wait so long to use the restroom. Also, the factory is kept at 45 degrees Fahrenheit to keep the carcasses from developing bacteria. It is a very uncomfortable work environment.
In addition to long hours, harsh supervisors, and uncomfortable working conditions, injuries are inevitable in the meat-packing industry. “Scores of studies show that pork workers already face serious injury rates three times higher than the national average, and illness rates that are 17 times higher” (McMillan). Line workers at Case Farms also accumulate many injuries, due to the repetitive nature of their work. Line speed contributes to most of the accidental injuries. Managers said that they can get 35 birds carved in one minute, but some workers claimed they had actually done as many as 45 birds. This is incredibly dangerous, as each worker is working quickly with sharp knives while very close to one another. “Since 2010, more than 750 processing workers have suffered amputations” (Grabell).
Workers often have chronic pain stemming from long hours of making repetitive motions. “In 2015, meat, poultry and fish cutters, repeating similar motions more than fifteen thousand times a day, experienced carpal-tunnel syndrome at nearly twenty times the rate of workers in other industries” (Grabell).
It is common for supervisors to discourage employees from reporting their injuries, because they are incentivized to minimize the number of workers compensation claims. Some companies offer supervisors annual bonuses if there are less reported work place injuries. One facility visited by the Food Empowerment Project, had a poster in their break room that said “0 reported injuries = end of month BBQ” (Slaughterhouse). Many companies have bragged that their number of worker injuries have gone down, but it is actually because the OSHA injury report form was rewritten to omit repetitive stress injuries. The number of workplace injuries is consistent, but the number of injuries workers have been able to report has dramatically gone down.
Osiel Lopez Perez left Guatemala on his 16th birthday to seek asylum in America, after his mother was shot and killed by gang members who consequently tried to kidnap his sisters. Perez stayed in Arizona for a few weeks before moving up to Canton to live with his uncle. He got a job at Case Farms, even though he was too young to legally work in a factory. His fake ID said he was 28 years old and used his brother’s picture, which looked nothing like him. His job was to clean grease, flesh and blood off the plant’s machines after their days work was finished. On a normal day in April 2015, Perez was cleaning the liver giblet chiller, which cycles chicken innards through a cold bath. He needed to turn off the water valve on top of the machine, but there were no available ladders, so he just climbed on the machine like his supervisor had shown him to. As he reached for the valve, his foot slipped, and the machine automatically turned on. The paddles in the machine grabbed his left leg and pulled and twisted so hard that his leg rotated 180 degrees. His leg was left hanging by a frayed ligament and a flap of skin, with his toes resting on his pelvis. He woke up in the hospital with an amputated lower leg. Case Farms response to this incident was to round up all underage and undocumented workers – including Perez - and fire them.
Thirty years ago, congress passed an immigration law that would give any employers caught hiring unauthorized workers fines and even jail time, but the law is rarely enforced. Case Farms is said to have an “unspoken policy of allowing workers to come back with a new ID” (Grabell) and they have even been known to sell identification papers to employees. An employee named Evodia Gonzalez Dimas was called to the human resources office because they received a letter from the Social Security administration claiming that her social security number was invalid. The HR director sold her a new permanent resident card and hired her back under a different name for the same job (Grabell). Another employee at Case Farms even claimed that he had worked at the same plant under four different names.
“Case Farms has built its business by recruiting some of the worlds most vulnerable immigrants, who endure harsh and at times illegal conditions that few Americans would put up with” (Grabell). From unreported injuries, harsh conditions, and unfair pay reductions, to unreported sexual harassment, workers don’t feel like they have a voice to speak up. When a few brave workers stand up for themselves against these harsh conditions, their immigration status is often used to shut them up. In 1993, 100 Case Farms employees protested their low pay, lack of bathroom breaks, and the payroll deductions they were receiving for using aprons and gloves. In response to this, the company had them arrested for trespassing. In 1995, 200 workers went on strike for four days and voted to unionize. Three weeks later, the company requested documents from more than 100 of them, claiming their work permits expired or were about to expire. They refused to negotiate with the union for years, until the union eventually gave up. Later on, they found that the majority of the leaders of the attempted union were undocumented and they fired them. “Many workers who try to form trade unions and bargain collectively are spied on, harassed, pressured, threatened, suspended, fired, deported or otherwise victimized for their exercise of the right to freedom of association” (Slaughterhouse). It is speculated that this issue will only get worse. Under Obama, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agreed not to investigate workers during labor disputes, but because of Donald Trump’s harsh view on immigrants, it is a concern that he will scrap that and allow companies to call ICE for any reason.
A former kill floor manager at a Morrell slaughterhouse in Iowa said “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” (Slaughterhouse). Workers on the kill floor often see animals go down the line without having been properly stunned, which means they have seen animals being cut, dismembered, boiled and skinned alive. Due to the fast-paced work environment, they can’t just stop what they are doing to ensure the animals aren’t conscious. Slaughterhouse work has been linked to a variety of disorders, including PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and PITS (Perpetration Induced Traumatic Stress) (Nagesh). PITS is a form of PTSD. Dr Obuya, a psychologist in London, related the occurrence of PITS in slaughterers to PITS in child soldiers. “They are in a position where they are the perpetrators of violence” (Nagesh). It can lead to symptoms like anxiety, depression and drug and alcohol abuse.
“The sheer amount of killing and blood can really get to you after a while” Virgil Butler, a former kill floor worker at a Tyson chicken plant wrote ,“ Especially if you can’t just shut down all emotion” (Nagesh). Butler described the isolation that he and his coworkers had felt. “You are murdering helpless birds by the thousands. You are a killer” he added. He noticed his colleagues didn’t really have other job options, due to their illiteracy and lack of an education. Many of these people were stuck in a bad situation and he noted they were more prone to violence. Workers had desensitized themselves to the acts of violence they were committing and would do things like play with the animal’s bodies for fun. Butler saw them ripping heads off live chickens, placing the heads on their fingers and using them as puppets. He also recalled them having ‘shit fights’, where they would aim at another person and squeeze a live chicken so violently that feces would squirt onto them. “You feel isolated from society, not a part of it. Alone. You know you are different from most people. They don’t have visions of horrible death in their heads. They have not seen what you have seen.” (Nagesh).
The meat-packing industry is consistently seen prioritizing their profits over their employees. From suppressing reported injuries to suppressing workers freedom of speech and association, the industry has violated many basic rights. The poorly regulated corporations functioning within this industry have not only physically damaged their employees, but also mentally and emotionally scarred them.
“51-3023 Slaughterers and Meat Packers.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 30 Mar. 2018, www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes513023.htm.
“Slaughterhouse Workers.” Peeling Back the Truth on Bananas | Food Empowerment Project, www.foodispower.org/slaughterhouse-workers/.
Admin. “The Psychological Damage of Slaughterhouse Work.” PTSDJournal, 25 Apr. 2016, www.ptsdjournal.com/…/the-psychological-damage-of-slaughte…/.
Grabell, Michael. “Exploitation and Abuse at the Chicken Plant.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 31 Aug. 2018, www.newyorker.com/…/exploitation-and-abuse-at-the-chicken-p….
McMillan, Suzanne, and Deborah Berkowitz. “High-Speed Pig Slaughter Will Be Disastrous for Everyone Involved | Deborah Berkowitz and Suzanne McMillan.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 17 Apr. 2018, www.theguardian.com/…/trump-administration-usda-swine-slaug….
Nagesh, Ashitha. “The Harrowing Psychological Toll of Slaughterhouse Work.” Metro, Metro.co.uk, 22 Jan. 2018, metro.co.uk/…/how-killing-animals-everyday-leaves-slaughte…/.