Originally posted in May 2020, and updated in April 2021
Billions of animals enter slaughterhouses each year. Many are already in pain, lame or sick. Others are pregnant or gave birth in the truck that took them there. None of them want to die. When we consider victims of slaughterhouses, we naturally think of the animals, but we should spare a thought, too, for those other victims: the slaughterers themselves.
Covid-19 Ran Rampant Through Slaughterhouses and Meat Packing Plants
All over the world, meat workers fell victim to Covid-19. In the first three months of the pandemic alone, there were outbreaks in 180 meat and processed food plants in the US and by July 2020, it was estimated that there had been up to 5,200 deaths connected to slaughterhouses and meat-packing plants.
In Canada, it was a similar story with early outbreaks at several slaughterhouses, including at Cargill near Montreal, 13 per cent of the staff became infected before the factory was shut down. One year on, things had not changed significantly. In February 2021, 455 cases of Covid were linked to a slaughterhouse in Alberta, with one person dying.
In one German slaughterhouse, 1,550 people tested positive; in Brazil, outbreaks struck at least 23 JBS slaughterhouses in seven states; in the UK, one slaughterhouse saw more than half its workers infected.
All across North America, and throughout Europe and Brazil, slaughterhouse workers and meat packers were hit especially hard. What’s more, despite 15 months elapsing and vaccinations now available, outbreaks in slaughterhouses are still being recorded.
Why Are Slaughterhouse Workers So At Risk?
Slaughterhouse work is not attractive, sought after or well paid. It often falls to the desperate – those with no alternative – to do this dirty, dangerous and stressful work. In America, roughly one third of meat industry workers are foreign-born non-citizens. In the UK, almost 70 per cent of slaughterhouse workers are immigrants.
For these poorly paid workers, home life often means being crammed into cheap, dilapidated rooms alongside their co-workers. They live side by side and each day climb into vans together to be taken back to work. Such conditions are thought to contribute to the Covid-19 outbreaks among slaughterhouses staff.
Slaughterhouse Conditions Make People Vulnerable
Like factory farms, slaughterhouses are ideal environments for viruses to spread. For 10-12 hours a day, workers may stand within a metre of one another, undertaking the one task asked of them – perhaps, shooting animals with a captive bolt, cutting throats, or removing spinal cords – over and over again. The animals’ bodies move on, but the workers do not move from their allotted space. Prof Benjamin Cowie, an epidemiologist and infectious disease expert for the Doherty Institute, says this set-up ‘unquestionably’ increases the risk of infection.
Adding to the risk is that many parts of the meat processing factories are kept cold. ‘We know that the coronavirus that causes Covid-19, similar to many other respiratory viruses, is more stable in cold conditions,’ explains Prof Cowie, ‘and that may have some role in increasing the potential for contamination or transmission.’
For those workers who do not speak fluently the language of the country they work in, the dangers increase still further. They may not fully understand the health and safety messages they are given, and they may not be able to ask questions when something concerns them. With or without a good grasp of the language, fear of losing their job may be sufficient to silence them, in any case.
Poverty Increases The Risk
Covid-19 affects poor communities disproportionately. Like many others on the lowest incomes, working from home is not an option for slaughterers, and missing a single paycheck could leave them destitute.
Economic insecurity means those who fall ill are likely to continue to work. Previously, this might have meant nothing worse than spreading a cold around the slaughterhouse floor but, with Covid-19, such stoicism can prove deadly.
Meat Workers Are Expendable
Because profits trump everything, slaughter lines keep moving, stopping neither for still-conscious animals nor for exhausted workers. In recent years, journalistic exposés have shone a light on how meat workers are typically treated by their bosses. Poultry workers, we now know, are routinely denied bathroom breaks. Many have no choice but to wear diapers or urinate on themselves, their dignity and wellbeing irrelevant in the cut-and-thrust of money-making.
When Tony Thompson, the sheriff for Black Hawk County in Iowa, visited the Tyson Foods pork plant last April, he was left shocked ‘to the core’ by the treatment of workers there. He saw with his own eyes what is all-too-common: many immigrants working side by side, and with little to no protection against the virus. Few wore face masks and those who did had fashioned their own out of bandanas or used sleep masks or decorators’ masks instead of medical protection equipment. Despite pleas from the sheriff to close the plant for the safety of staff, it remained open. At least one employee vomited while working on the production line, and several left the facility with soaring temperatures. One month later, one third of the workforce is infected, some are on ventilators, and three have died.
The plant eventually did close but not for long. With the former President’s declaration that meat supply is ‘critical infrastructure’ – despite no one needing to eat meat, and despite there being no shortage of it – he absolved slaughterhouses from liability. Tyson reopened the plant, once again risking the lives of its staff.
Writer Jonathan Safran Foer says forcing meat workers back into the factories marks a nadir in the increasingly broken meat supply system. ‘For years, we have knowingly destroyed our planet for the sake of a protein preference,’ he says. ‘Now, we are sending humans to their deaths.’
Sheriff Thompson came to the same sad conclusion. ‘Which is more important?’ he asks. ‘Your pork chops, or the people that are contracting Covid, the people that are dying from it?’
It is a question we should all ask ourselves.
Many Physical Dangers
Even before Covid-19, slaughterhouses ranked among the most dangerous places to work in the United States. Long hours, repetitive work, moving machinery, the slaughter line moving too fast, sharp knives and captive bolt guns make a dangerous combination. Operating or cleaning machines on the slaughterhouse floor carries the risk of crushed hands, amputations, burns, and blindness.
Workers describe punishing rates of production, leaving them with a lifetime of pain and physical problems. In one Maryland plant, more than three-quarters of workers had abnormal nerve conditions in at least one hand. In the UK, two slaughterhouse workers suffer serious injuries each week and amputations are inflicted at a rate of more than one per month.
For the unlucky ones, a single lapse in concentration can lead to debilitating injury or death. Between 2004 and 2013, 151 meat and poultry workers died in the US from injuries sustained at work.
Multiple Mental Health Risks
Slaughterhouse work has also been linked to a variety of mental health disorders, including PTSD and the lesser-known PITS (perpetration-induced traumatic stress). It has also been connected to an increase in crime rates, including higher incidents of domestic abuse, as well as alcohol and drug abuse.
Research has found that slaughterers suffer from paranoid nightmares about their work, with feelings of guilt and shame recurring. Depression is not uncommon. Suicide and suicidal thoughts have been reported.
Dr Chi-Chi Obuaya, a consultant psychiatrist at a London mental health hospital, likened slaughterhouse work to child soldiers, forced into a conflict situation in which they have to commit horrific acts of violence.
We should not be surprised. To receive their paycheck, slaughterers must dispassionately dispatch animals, cut through flesh, open arteries and veins, and watch the lifeblood flow away. This means desensitisation to violence is not only inevitable, it is essential. Yet switching off empathy can have dire consequences for other parts of their lives – and for the rest of society. It can lead to destructive, violent behavior, evidenced by the number of murderers who worked in slaughterhouses.
We Are All Responsible
When we as a society decide to eat meat, we create a raft of devastating outcomes. Eating meat has led to many infectious diseases – including tuberculosis, measles, whooping cough, typhoid, leprosy, bird flu, swine flu, Ebola, SARS, MERS and Covid-19 – that make us sick and kill our loved ones. It drives climate breakdown and deforestation. It wipes out wild species and pollutes our waterways so badly nothing can survive. It makes victims of billions of farmed animals, and creates countless human victims, too, who suffer from diabetes and heart disease as a result of eating those products. It desensitises those who have no choice but to do the job that we are too squeamish to do ourselves, and yet we absolve ourselves from responsibility when they fall apart, hurt themselves, or take what is actually a small step from deliberately harming animals to deliberately harming people.
Covid-19 has shown very clearly that slaughterhouse workers are victims of this system, too. This is not the job they dreamed of when they were children. This is not how they hoped their lives would be.
There is irony of course in meat-eating causing this pandemic and meat workers being hit so hard by it. But the blame is not theirs. It belongs to all of society.
To find out more about switching to a plant-based diet for the good of animals, the planet AND people, access our free Vegan Starter Kit.