28 July 2020

Slaughterhouse Workers,
Farmed Animals, and Animal Advocates:
Can There Be Justice For All?

By Karen Davis, PhD, President of United Poultry Concerns

This article was first published July 28, 2020 by Animals-24-7.

Townsend Slaughter Plant
Photo by Carol McCormick for United Poultry Concerns

“It really does something to your mind when you stand there in all that blood, killing so many times, over and over again.”
– Virgil Butler, former Tyson chicken slaughterhouse employee

If I see or hear the word “meatpacking” one more time, I will throw up. Ditto for “poultry processing” and the entire echo chamber designed to shield us from responsibility for the worst workplaces on Earth. Contrary to the rhetoric, slaughterhouse work is not essential employment. Nothing good – or “essential” – happens on the way to the slaughterhouse, inside a slaughterhouse, or as a result of what comes out of it.

When animal advocates try to help people understand what chickens and other animals are being put through to turn them into food, a not uncommon response is something like, “Well, I’m sorry for the animals, but I care more about people.”

This reaction allows us to politely point out that caring about human beings is a sufficient reason of itself to be vegan, a moral imperative if we really care. It is often noted that no one but a sociopath or a sadist – and maybe a masochist – wants to work in a slaughterhouse. But if you are none of these things starting out, you can find yourself moving in a pathological direction in the course of your occupation. Even prisoners would rather sit in their cells than work in a slaughter plant, as journalist Martha Rosenberg recently observed in the podcast Hope for the Animals and the Contradiction of “Humane” Meat with Martha Rosenberg.

Americans who want to keep “aliens” out of the country are content to let – or should we say make – these same individuals suffer to "put food on the table.” If all slaughterhouse workers suddenly quit, would diehard meateaters who are too “good” to be “meatpackers” bite the bullet and report to the kill floor themselves?

In most cases, probably not. Most people still have no idea how satisfying vegan food is and can be. No idea of the wealth of delectable recipes, dining experiences, and food choices. If suddenly there were no slaughterhouse workers, people would then be motivated – “forced” – to check out the vegan “animal” products and menu items, which would grow rapidly in abundance and availability to meet the demand. Once the disgruntled phase passed, most people would marvel that they ever worried about not having meat or other such products to put in their mouth.

I believe it is vital for animal rights vegan advocates to include in our public outreach a reminder of the plight of the human beings who suffer mentally and physically in making animals dead for the table. “Caring about humans" opens a door for us to show how being vegan expresses the care that we have for these people as well as for the animals.

By the same token, however, I do not agree that animal advocates should participate in efforts to make it more comfortable, lucrative, and “dignified” for people to work in a slaughterhouse. Making it easier for people to terrorize, injure, and kill animals, calling slaughterers “meatpackers” and “processors,” is not, in my opinion, our task.

I do not mean to minimize or dismiss the horrible working conditions for slaughterhouse workers. It isn’t only the physical conditions. Virgil Butler’s partner, Laura Alexander, wrote of her experience when she asked Virgil to take her to where he hung and slaughtered the chickens during his shift: “It was like this wave – this wall – of negative energy hitting me in the face when we opened that door. The only thing I can even try to compare it to would be that feeling you get in places like hospitals and jails, where there is suffering and death, dread and fear. Take that feeling and magnify it by at least 10 and you will have maybe an inkling of what I felt at the door of that room that day. I could not leave fast enough.”

A thought that haunts me in making my argument is that the more horrible the conditions are for workers in a slaughter facility, the more likely they will take out their anger and frustration even more violently on the animals. Sadistic treatment of chickens, turkeys, and other animals by workers in slaughter facilities and in all sectors of animal food production is well-documented. See, for example, House of Raeford Turkey Slaughter Investigation and Deliberate Cruelty to Chickens by Tyson Workers.

Not all social justice interests are compatible. If we make an exception for jobs and people whose murder victims are pigs and cows and chickens instead of humans, are we not betraying our mission to liberate our animal kin from the complacent oppression of our species? Protecting the killing of animals in an evil, inessential occupation does not benefit us. Obliterating the world’s worst occupation and building the vegan economy does. Food production will always require a workforce. There is nothing to worry about on that front.

See UPC’s policy statement on
Animal Rights and Other Social Justice Movements.

KAREN DAVIS, PhD is the President and Founder of United Poultry Concerns, a nonprofit organization that promotes the compassionate and respectful treatment of domestic fowl including a sanctuary for chickens in Virginia. She is the author of numerous books, essays, articles and campaigns advocating for these birds. Her latest book is For the Birds: From Exploitation to Liberation: Essays on Chickens, Turkeys, and Other Domesticated Fowl (Lantern Books, 2019).