Meatpacking: "The Speed Kills You"

Every day I think of them, the nameless billions who face death in fear. Ten billion every year in this country, 320 every second of every day. It's unfathomable, really.

Animal agriculture exploits all animals. The most obvious are the ones butchered for human consumption - the cattle, pigs, sheep, chickens, turkeys, goats, ducks. And if producers are willing to tear asunder the bonds between mother and child (on dairy farms and swine facilities), reduce sentient beings to production units, marvel at marbling and prime cuts, it is unsurprising they would treat humans that way as well. The exploitation committed by multi-billion dollar corporations knows no bounds.

Obviously we focus on the animals, because the amount of cruelty perpetrated against them is monumental. But we care about humans as well, which is why we promote veganism - it is a diet of compassion and kindness for all life, people included.

Recently, Nebraska Appleseed published a document called "The Speed Kills You - The Voice of Nebraska's Meatpacking Workers". Nebraska Appleseed conducted an interview of 455 meatpacking employees from five communities within the state of Nebraska.

Here's some of what they found:

Processing lines are too fast
Think about this for a moment: Your job is to make upwards of 20,000 - twenty thousand - cutting motions during your shift. I remember playing tennis as a child. Swinging the racket was tiresome, an hour session of practice left me sore and uncomfortable for days. Even when my skills improved, there were still days when my elbow and shoulder felt strained and sensitive. Doing something similar for 8-12 hours a day is not just unappealing, it's unhealthy. All those cutting motions lead to tendon and nerve damage, causing musculature disorders that are debilitating and often irreversible.

This is unsurprising when you consider the slaughterhouse and its assembly of whole animals hacked into component parts. For example, at Tyson Food Inc's slaughter plant in Kansas, 5,700 cattle are killed daily. In an Alabama slaughterhouse, 100,000 "broiler" chickens are killed daily. Do the math. That is an enormous number of animals killed daily, nay hourly. The gruesome image of mutilated animals aside, having to cut up the bodies is dangerous in the short term (acute injuries) and in the long term (chronic, prolonged disorders) for the workers.

In the report, 73% of workers stated that the assembly line speed had increased since the last year (2006-2007) and 94% said that the number of staff remained the same or decreased. In this country, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) does not regulate line speed, even though they are the oversight organization for implementing protocols and rules governing worker safety.

Working in a processing plant is dangerous

This goes without saying, really. Employees are dealing with animals uninterested in dying (some of them are very large), their dead bodies, and all the sharp and dangerous equipment used to butcher. Half of survey respondants stated that safety standards had declined in the past year. The meatpacking industry has one of the highest rates of turnover in all professions - more than 100%. It seems few people can endure the long-term stress and horror of the processing facility.

In 2008, the Charlotte Observer published a good investigative report on the slaughterhouse industry called the Cruelest Cuts. The journalists found that poultry plants often mask injuries or under-report them. For example, a House of Raeford processing plant in South Carolina claimed to have no injuries within a 5-yr period, a statistical improbability, according to experts. Poultry plants underreport the types of injuries, especially those that are chronic, like carpal tunnel syndrome or other musculo-skeletal disorders. While poultry producers claim a ten year reduction in injuries, both the Nebraska study and the investigation done by the Charlotte Observer paint a different picture. Not only are some injuries crossed out of the injury log, but employers are only required to report the most significant (deadly or disfiguring) injuries to OSHA. The system is set up to fail employees - it's an honor system, with no legal requirement to present injury logs consistently to OSHA or any other oversight committee.

So while industry spokespersons, like those representing the American Meat Institute, use US Bureau of Labor Statistics to claim that reported injuries and illnesses for fell nearly 8 percent in a year, their argument is disingenuous at best. Especially when the statistics are garnered from the injury logs created and monitored by upper management at processing facilities. Fox guarding the henhouse much?

If you cared to know, using the statistics provided by the industry and reported to the Bureau of Labor, you are more likely to be injured working in the toy department of a store than making 20,000 repetitive cuts with a sharp knife in a poultry processing plant. This defies logic.

Processing plant workers live in a culture of fear
91% of meatpacking plant workers are aware they have rights, like the right to medical care, the right to worker's compensation, the right to choosing your own doctor, and the right to unionize. But only 30% felt those rights made any difference. That is, even though they knew they *had* rights (available to them regardless of citizenship status, by the way), it did not matter - their rights would not be honored in any meaningful manner.

For example, take the right to unionize. It's a state and federal right. 2/3 of meatpacking employees in Nebraska do not belong to a union and part of the reason is how the legal right to unionize is presented to them by their bosses. 97% of workers surveyed at a non-unionized plant reported that their employer portrayed unions as incredibly negative, entities wanting to steal their hard-earned money and attempting to put them out of a job. According to one respondent, "If someone wants to talk about the union, they'll call the police."

Or worker's compensation, another legal right that is not contingent upon whether the person in question is a legal citizen or not. Only 44% of employees in the Nebraska plants knew about workers' compensation. 62% of those surveyed experienced an injury in the previous year and 83% reported that injury to a supervisor - 99% were told to just ice it. Because, as you know, icing your completely torn up, damaged tendons and muscles will magically fix the problem. Half of these workers ended up seeing a doctor, while another 14% ended up in the hospital. Only 16% ended up seeing their own doctor or choosing their own doctor. This means they ended up in the hands of meatpacking plant doctors and nurses who may not have had the best interest of their patients in mind. Only 50% of those injured received medical coverage from their employer. If you got injured, you had a 50/50 chance of paying out of pocket for something your employer should, by all rights, be funding. Those who had to stay at work for more than seven days did not receive wage compensation from their employer. That's illegal.

In the Observer's investigation, between 25-75% of all meatpacking plant employees are undocumented. Former employees of a poultry plant stated that they preferred undocumented workers who were more likely to endure oppressive treatment (like not being allowed to use the restroom during their shift, being verbally assaulted, etc) out of fear than documented workers. Animal agribusiness (and other agricultural entities) use this fear to deny medical coverage, encourage longer work shifts, and discourage workers from partaking of their legal right to unionize. No matter where you stand on the immigration debate, it is inexcusable in any modern society to treat people in such substandard ways that they may be disfigured, killed or permanently disabled because of their employment.

Meatpacking is a dirty, disgusting job. It exists because of an over-reliance on meat, dairy and eggs as our primary source of protein and other nutrients. Our desire for inexpensive products produced quickly spells disaster for both nonhumans and humans alike. The tragedy for the animals occurs at day one - their lives are bleak, at best, horrifying at worst. Their end is one more indignity, one more cruel treatment in a litany of abusive injustices. And for the humans who will earn less than $25,000 carving up the billions of bodies, their job is heartbreaking and achingly frustrating. Their undocumented status makes them more likely to take on jobs where they will be denied their basic rights as a human citizen in this country. Their desire to eke out a living means they will work long hours doing jobs most people would quit after an hour. Some become desensitized to the violence in front of them, others become so sensitized they are traumatized for years.

I wanted to write about this because animal agriculture is hurtful to us all. We deserve to be treated with respect and dignity. None of us, cow or human, should be reduced to parts and "cutting ability". These human workers are as ignored and forgotten as the animals they kill to fill the bellies of people who, if faced with an actual slaughterhouse, would faint from the blood, the horror, the outrage of what we do to these sentient, beautiful creatures. While the workers are not slaughtered by the droves, they are oppressed and mistreated, put into positions where they are injured and disfigured, forced to endure humiliation and verbal/physical assaults. They are part of this cycle of cruelty.

No law can fix this problem. No specially formed committee can stop the violence and oppression. Not when people want cheap food. Not when producers will do whatever they can to increase speed and output. Not when cattle and chickens are seen as commodities and their slaughterers as tools of the trade.

Fixing the problem is easy to say, harder to implement on a global scale. But I'll go ahead and say it: Stop being part of the oppression and cruelty. Stop eating meat. Stop drinking milk. Stop eating eggs. Choose a plant-based diet and a vegan lifestyle. And do so in a way that honors fairly the workers who harvest your fruits and vegetables as well. You can only win by transitioning over to a vegan diet and you'll be making a statement that how animals - human and nonhuman - are perceived matters to you. That you don't just care, you go beyond the words and rhetoric and into action - you're doing something.


Rachel said...

I am always extremely impressed by the eloquent and profound writing of Marji. Thank you for sharing yet another perspective in the ongoing process of conveying the horrors of our abusive culture. The animals are lucky to have you as a voice.

Anonymous said...

Ditto Rachel.

Thank you for reminding us that the immorality of our treatment of animals makes victims of everyone who takes part in this corrupt system.

The Vegas Vegan said...

I am a huge proponent of "actions speak louder than words" and I notice the HUGE impact eating a plant-based vegan diet makes while sitting at a table full of meat-eaters. I don't have to say a word, I just watch their faces. And eventually.... someone asks.