Monday, February 9, 2015

Slaughterhouse Workers Are Not the Enemy

The Vegan Vine
Protesting in front of the Catelli Brothers Slaughterhouse
On World Day for Farmed Animals, celebrated every year on Gandhi’s birthday (October 2), I thought I would do something special to signify the day, so I attended a New Jersey Farm Animal Save protest at the Catelli Brothers slaughterhouse in Shrewsbury, New Jersey.

The Catelli slaughterhouse is Shrewsbury's dirty little secret. Cleverly disguised as an office building, scared and bellowing animals are removed from a transport truck and forced into the back of the building in the wee hours of the morning when most people are still peacefully asleep, unaware of the terror, fear and violence that abounds there. A sign out front discreetly reads “Quality Veal & Lamb Products.”

Having worked in the area I was familiar with the abattoir, more so than most people who have lived there their entire lives. Given the public’s determined obliviousness, the protest provided a great opportunity to bring awareness to this house of horrors to the folks who pass by it every day.

Not long after I arrived at the protest, a fellow protester approached me and asked if I were vegan. I thought it an odd question considering where we were and what we were doing. Imagine my surprise when she said she wasn't vegan or vegetarian but felt that "it’s wrong what they're doing there.” Before I could inquire further, she moved to a spot across the street.

I assumed she was referring to the publicity surrounding last year’s undercover video that caused the slaughterhouse to be temporarily shut down. According to federal regulators, the animals were not being humanely slaughtered on par with USDA standards. Catelli closed its doors for about a week and then went back to business as usual having had, supposedly, retrained the staff about the proper way to unnecessarily take an animal's life. 

Or, perhaps this particular protester was concerned about the age of the animals being slaughtered since veal is made from newborn calves and lamb from newborn sheep. Age seemed to be an issue for another protester I spoke with who was upset about two main things: the workers themselves and the fact that they kill babies. I explained how all farm animals killed for food are, in effect, babies because they're all taken long before their natural lifespans. Furthermore, I discussed the direct connection between dairy consumption and veal. Few people in general seem to grasp that without the dairy industry, there would be no veal.

Since it was a weekday, we saw some of the workers coming and going. One older woman made a point of showing her protest sign to a worker leaving the facility, asking him if he could read it, which I thought was condescending and uncalled for. In an unusual circumstance, I found myself trying to explain the issues these workers face and how they, too, are exploited. While I would never condone what they do, I think targeting them is fruitless and ill-focused.

An industry that is hostile to animals is no less hostile to the people it employs to do our dirty work. In a 2011 VegNews article, "Injustice for All", Mark Hawthorne investigated the conditions of slaughterhouse workers and found their jobs to be one of the most dangerous in the world. Working conditions often violate international human rights standards, and since many workers are immigrants (38%), and often undocumented, they remain fearfully silent. The average abattoir worker earns just $11.42 an hour, and they are often required to kill a large number of animals per minute. In the case of one poultry factory worker, 35 per minute. Those workers who fall behind are often subjected to humiliation and verbal abuse. Additionally, the large output demanded of them results in workplace injuries that often go unreported and untreated. Many workers do not have access to healthcare so in the rare instance that they do report an injury, they are often shuffled off to a company doctor who downplays their affliction.

In an interview with Mother Jones, Ted Genoways, whose family worked in the slaughter and meat packing industry, corroborated the increased injuries correlated with increased line speeds. “. . . when amputations occurred among the workers, and you've got somebody who's had a finger chopped off or has had a deep cut on their arm so that they're bleeding all over their station, there's somebody there to just pause that station and clean it while the rest of the line continues to move . . . they're not allowed bathroom breaks, or even ordinary breaks to sharpen knives or to wash their hands.” Nothing is more important than keeping the production line—the killing, eviscerating, slicing and packaging—moving at all times. 
“Slaughterhouse workers tend to be people who don’t have many other options . . . ,” said Cori Mattli in “Vegan in the Dairy State” (Chickpea, 2013). “Studies show that there is a high correlation with slaughterhouse work and post-traumatic stress disorder, severe anxiety, drug and alcohol abuse, and domestic violence. Workers become desensitized to violence.”

Slaughterhouse workers are people with little power who are given control over innocent and helpless creatures who are at their mercy, and the results are often inhuman and sickening. In her book, Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows, Dr. Melanie Joy provided worker testimony detailing the violence committed against both human and nonhuman animals.

Most stickers (those who stand in blood and slit the animal’s neck) have been arrested for assault. A lot of them have problems with alcohol. They have to drink, they have no other way of dealing with killing live, kicking animals all day long. . . . A lot of guys . . . just drink and drug their problems away. Some of them end up abusing their spouses because they can’t get rid of the feelings.

I've taken out my job pressure and frustration on the animals. . . . [T]here was a live hog in the pit. It hadn’t done anything wrong, wasn’t’ even running around the pit. It was just alive. I took a three-foot chunk of pipe—and I literally beat that hog to death. Couldn’t have been a two-inch piece of solid bone left in its head. Basically, if you want to put it in layman’s terms, I crushed his skull. It was like I started hitting the hog and I couldn’t stop. And when I finally did stop, I’d expended all this energy and frustration, and I’m thinking, what in God’s sweet name did I do? (p. 83)

As I tried to explain to my fellow Catelli protesters, it always comes down to simple economics and the willfulness of individuals. If consumers discontinue buying animal products, then farmed animals will cease being bred and supplied to slaughterhouses, and businesses like Catelli will eventually fold. Slaughterhouse work is precisely related to consumer demand for animal flesh and secretions. Each of us has enormous purchasing power. When we buy animal products, we endorse violence against animals. To demonize the exploited slaughterhouse worker for giving us what we ask for and for doing what we ourselves don't have the nerve to do with our own hands is craven and hypocritical. 

By all means, slaughterhouse workers are not innocent, but neither are they solely guilty in committing cruelty against animals. In his book, Every Twelve Seconds, Timothy Pachirat explained how distance and concealment are utilized to sustain industrialized killing in our modern society. "Those who benefit at a distance, delegating this terrible work to others while disclaiming responsibility for it, [bear] more moral responsibility, particularly in contexts like the slaughterhouse, where those with the fewest opportunities in society perform the dirty work" (p. 160).

For all intents and purposes, the nonvegan protester I met is no better than your average consumer in approving and upholding the atrocities and savagery that take place every day behind slaughterhouse walls. Maybe she is slowly making the connection between her food choices and animal abuse as she comes to realize that she, too, has blood on her hands. 

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