Slaughterhouses are horrifying, but not for the reasons you might expect
By Noga Golan for #MeatlessLaborDay
I drove to the meatpacking plants expecting to see screaming animals and blood. Instead, I found terrified, horrified humans. In the past month, I’ve spent hundreds of hours getting to know California’s Central Valley meatpackers, and the stories I heard from these timid, hard-working workers about their psychological and physical trauma were beyond what you or I have ever read in the news.
Not for the faint of heart
I heard first-hand accounts of a man’s thumb getting cut off in a saw (“it happens, it’s just part of the job”), an arm that got caught in a machine and torn off a young woman’s body (“she almost bled to death, but luckily we were able to slow the bleeding until an ambulance came”), and a 72-year old man named Leopoldo that died when he was accidentally locked in a grinder.
On most days during my stay, the temperatures reached 110°F and the smell of baked carcasses seemed to worsen with the extreme heat warnings. At the risk of sounding hyperbolic; this was the closest to what I’ve come to hell on earth.
There are numerous slip-and-falls, “because the floor is always covered in blood, which is more slippery than water,” a former Safety Manager explained to me (we’ll call him Anthony, which is not his real name). We were sitting in a Starbucks in the heartland of California, which I’d invited him to after speaking with him on the phone. I was trying to get specific stories or a count of how frequently he encountered severe injuries, but all he could say was “it would be too many for me to count or tell you about. It happens all the time.” It’s no wonder the meat industry has repeatedly been under scrutiny from OSHA (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration) for its unusually high injury rate compared to other industries.
“Most employees have the innate ability and desire to do things safely,” Anthony said, “so what makes them take risks?” He believes it all comes down to the length of the shifts (often lasting 12–14 hours), workers’ fatigue, especially towards the end of their shift, and the repetitive motions causing long-term bone and muscle damage (for example, a de-hoofer will make the same cutting motion throughout their entire shift, as will a skinner, a tail-bagger, and a head knocker). “You can’t forget that the environment is tough, too. The smells, the sights. The floor is always wet. Your clothes are always bloody. Some workers work in hot, humid conditions and others in refrigerated rooms chilled to 36°F. That’s ok for a few hours, but people lose focus after 10 hours in those conditions.”
Meatpacking employees are constantly worried about getting injured, Anthony shared. “When that woman’s arm got ripped off in a machine, it was really hard. Everyone that saw it was traumatized. There’s a lot of psychological damage.”
One employee told me that most workers don’t last beyond their first 30 days at the plant, usually due to disgust from seeing and smelling so much blood, internal organs, and feces. “Gripas” (literally, Spanish for “flu” or “sickness”), is the nickname for workers that clean the intestines. It’s known among the employees as one of the more gruesome jobs as it involves removing and cleaning out organs and intestines from content and feces.
Perhaps the most jarring revelation is the ferocity with which these plants fight to keep the public from finding out what goes on behind their walls. The meatpacking plants I saw in California had more layers of barbed wire and security cameras than any of the dozen or so military bases I’ve served in in Israel. Even more unsettling is the fear instilled in the industry’s employees.
Tyranny in California
These meatpacking plants wrap themselves with layers of barbed wire, cameras, guards, patrol cars, and tyrannous fear. Bringing a cell phone on the premises is a fireable offense. And if that wasn’t enough, I heard from a former employee at a Central Valley beef plant that there is an undercover employee in each department whose job is to suss out potential activists or ‘rogue’ employees who may try to take pictures or document the inside of the facility. This is probably why the employees I met were so terrified to talk to me or tell me their names.
Eduardo (not his real name), a tall-ish man with skin the color of distressed adobe, quietly told me that he feels “like a slave in there,” but was reluctant to share what his role was or what the conditions were. Juan, Rodrigo, and José, not their real names, hesitantly told me they had nothing to say about the working conditions. Finally, “Bowser” (his chosen pseudonym) agreed for me to contact him but noted we needed to be careful because of the security cameras. He made a gesture for me to look up, and I saw the dozens of security cameras staring down at us from the perimeter fence.
Most factories are fenced and guarded to protect trade secrets, but the slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants of California are the Fort Knox of food facilities. People generally know where meat comes from, and while there is a general preference not to know the specifics of ‘how the sausage is made’, all of this secrecy and iron-handed management just feels wrong. The three hotbeds for COVID-19 outbreaks are nursing homes, prisons, and meatpacking plants. It’s unfortunate, but understandable, why this would be the case in nursing homes and prisons. But it’s not clear why meatpacking plants would suffer significantly higher rates of COVID-19 outbreaks and deaths compared to other production plants, factories, and food facilities. The relentless efforts to hide and keep people quiet begs the question, what are they hiding behind those windowless concrete walls that they are so afraid for the public to see?
Exploiting Hispanic communities
Every single one of the meatpacking workers I met within the Central Valley was Hispanic. “A white person would never be okay with working there,” one employee told me. One cannot ignore the stark racial inequity in this industry. Of course, it is not only the meatpacking industry that takes advantage of those who lack awareness of their rights and are afraid to speak up, there are many improvements to be made in the treatment of unskilled workers, but the meatpacking industry is by far the worst offender (the general consensus from the people I spoke to was that working in the fields was far preferred over the work in meatpacking plants.)
Let’s shine a glaring spotlight on this industry and tell the world about the abusive conditions in meatpacking plants. Let’s bring down the concrete walls and hold the meatpacking industry accountable for how they treat their workers. September 6th is Labor Day, meant to pay tribute to hardworking laborers: Let’s show our support by taking the pledge to go meatless on Labor Day and help alleviate some of the pressure for meatpacking workers on one of the busiest days of the year.