“No one is here by choice” was the unshakable feeling that rattled around my head and uncomfortably settled into my body over the years while working undercover as a factory farm investigator. For fourteen to sixteen hours a day six days a week we were surrounded by death. It’s the type of death that is vilified and often mistakenly depicted at the hands of not only the willing but gleeful participants. But, that couldn’t be further from the truth. So why is it we demonize factory farm workers? Where do these assumptions come from?
The exact number of factory farm workers in the United States is unknown but most studies put the number between 500,000 and 700,000 with a 95–100% annual turnover rate. Of those five-hundred to seven-hundred thousand workers an estimated 38 percent are born outside the United States, many undocumented. This leaves them open to exploitation in an industry where exploitation already runs rampant. In August 2019 what is now considered the largest workplace immigration raid took place across 7 food processing plants in Mississippi and led to the arrest of 680 people highlighting just how dependent our food systems have become on immigrant labor.
The reasons immigrants are targeted for work on factory farms and slaughterhouses is in part due to the high turnover. Many are economic refugees looking to provide for their families and willing to take any work available. This desperation forces these individuals into precarious positions without bargaining power, the right to compensation benefits for incidents including work-related injuries (“repetitive motion injury rate 30 times the national average” and a 50 percent chance of being injured over five years on the job), and leaves them with little pay and no security net. Pushed to work grueling hours and faced with the constant threat of deportation it’s no wonder most factory farm workers are stressed.
During my work it wasn’t uncommon to see workers wearing diapers because bathroom breaks were frowned upon, lunches kept short, and line times ever shortened. The floors of slaughter houses are slick and dangerous. The air in high confinement operations can be toxic. Dust generated from animals and gases from their waste can easily accumulate to concentrations that make it dangerous for both workers and animals alike. In slaughterhouses cleaning chemicals can cause irritation to the nose, eyes, and airways. And most women have experienced sexual assault or harassment from their superiors. (Sexual assault and harassment is found across all agricultural industries not just factory farms or slaughterhouses)
And if for a second one would think hiring Americans would solve many of these problems we know this isn’t the case. Exploitative by nature, factory farms and slaughterhouses target those who are already economically and geographically disenfranchised, including Americans. They are the individuals who are struggling — willing to do just about anything to provide for their family. Abuses and safety concerns no matter how egregious are overlooked or pushed aside by the individual because food on their table is more important. With a national income of roughly $23,000 a year workers are barely able to stay above the poverty line creating a cyclical cycle which is incentivized by employers to “recruit family and friends”. In short, they are just trying to survive.
Knowing what we know about the horrid and abusive working conditions, why then are factory farm workers demonized? Where did this stereotype of the sociopathic animal abuser come from? In effort to raise awareness for animal rights, movies such as Earthlings as narrated by Joaquin Phoenix or undercover news investigations often capture highly stressed out individuals kicking and punching confined and often hurt animals. They depict the callous slitting of throats, the improper stunning, and the tossing aside of injured animals in what are understandably viewed as immoral behaviors lacking in the very basics of human compassion. But their stories are hard to capture in a few frames. What we don’t see are individuals trying their best under less than ideal situations for humans and animals alike. And, what is largely misunderstood is the psychological damage and trauma that repeatedly leads to these behaviors.
Every single factory farm worker I met told me they hated their job but couldn’t find another. They didn’t like hurting animals and if given an alternative they would happily take it. It seemed to me that the bolt gun wasn’t just against the heads of the animals coming for slaughter but to the workers as well. Escape is unlikely and even if attained often comes with lasting psychological damage.
Working in a slaughterhouse is violent at its very core. It doesn’t matter how much state-of-the-art technologies are put in the place. The job itself is all about killing and dissecting, something that even the most hardened would find beyond difficult. The acts are repeated minute after minute, day after day, year after year — frequently leading to cumulative psychological trauma including PTSD. “Consequently, deviant behaviour patterns of slaughterhouse employees have been reported in and outside of the work setting with specific reference to social dilemmas such as substance abuse, intimate partner violence and an increase in crime rates.” Is it really that surprising then to know that this built up stress, pressure, and psychological trauma can be transferred to the animals for whom they are to care for and ultimately kill?
What is often forgotten in the animal rights and vegan advocacy movement is the inherent privilege of choice. It becomes easy to demonize or cast judgement on those who aren’t vegan or make choices we don’t approve of. Access not just to fresh food sources but to choice of occupation are too often left out of the conversation. Or, overshadowed by the rights of animals when in fact our food systems are complex. Solutions will be arduous but achievable if we open up the entirety of the conversation and action to include social justice.
Perhaps COVID-19 helped to bring us just a bit closer on this front. For one of the first times in memorable history the pandemic raised public awareness on modern factory farm and slaughterhouse work conditions. The stress, crowded workspaces, and unsanitary conditions are all rife for future outbreaks. Additionally, “while large corporations were buying ads telling the American public that the nation was precariously close to a nationwide meat shortage, pushing workers to toil in unsafe conditions, and contributing to panicked hoarding at the supermarket, they were also quietly exporting millions of pounds of meat abroad.”
While many Americans thought that slaughterhouses were shuttering the cold facts were Smithfield Foods was failing to protect their employees from COVID-19. The lack of PPE, employee training on the spread of the virus, plexiglass barriers among other violations led to more than 315 workers contracting COVID-19 (three of which were hospitalized) and a $13,494 fine “the maximum allowed by law.” The lid was peeled off. It is now up to us to decide what to do with that information.
Factory farm workers don’t need our foregone conclusions which only further create social disparity with those already struggling — low income families, marginalizied minorities, undocumented immigrants. They are the ones paying the highest price for our food. What they do need is support and understanding. They need better pay, better healthcare, the right to collectively bargain, to be safe in their jobs, and to be seen. They need us to go after the corporations which allow such practices to infect and spread throughout all levels of their operations.
If we push those whose voices we need to hear the most further from us we stand to lose out on valuable and long lasting change. After all, food and community go hand-in-hand and to build a stronger global community we must focus on social justice in our quest towards a just, equitable, healthy, and compassionate food system.