Advocate: Human Slavery in America’s Slaughterhouses
By Jack Vegetarianberger
Is there an industry in the United States whose profits
depend on slave labor? After reading Human Rights Watch’s new report, Blood,
Sweat, and Fear: Workers’ Rights in U.S. Meat and Poultry Plants,
about alleged human rights violations in the nation’s meat-packing
plants and slaughterhouses, it seems to me that the meat industry treats
many of its workers as de facto human slaves.
Human Rights Watch does not portray workers in the meat industry as
nor could I find the words “slave” or “slavery” mentioned
in the 175-page report (though they might appear somewhere in its pages). During
the last several months I have been reading about slavery, particularly how slavery
has evolved during recent years, and after reading Human Rights Watch’s
detailed report, which includes many personal interviews, I was struck by the
similarities between how many slaughterhouse workers and how contemporary slaves
Of course, some critical differences exist between the two oppressed groups but,
as I read page after page of workers’ testimony in Blood, Sweat and Fear,
it takes a hardened heart to not sympathize with these men and women who are
victimized, work under difficult and dangerous circumstances, and are often badly
Some vegetarians might be wondering why they should be concerned about slaughterhouse
workers who, after all, are agents of death for nonhuman animals. True, the beings
whose lives are stolen from them on the killing floor of a slaughterhouse are
farmed animals, not the men and women who maltreat and slaughter them. Yet, I
feel we should show compassion toward all beings, even slaughterhouse workers,
who are also victimized. In no way do I condone their actions; however, it is
important to also recognize their hardships and suffering.
The Human Rights Watch report focuses on three areas: workplace health and safety
and workers’ compensation; freedom of association; and protection of rights
of immigrant workers.
Regarding health and compensation, the report says that many “workers suffer
severe, life-threatening and sometimes life-ending injuries that are predictable
and preventable.” Also, many workers, it finds, “cannot get the compensation
for workplace injuries to which they are entitled.”
In terms of freedom of association, the report says that “[m]any workers
who try to form trade unions and bargain collectively are spied on, harassed,
pressured, threatened, suspended, fired, deported or otherwise victimized for
their exercise of the right to freedom of association.”
Human Rights Watch focused on three representative companies: Nebraska Beef,
which operates a beef packing plant in Omaha, Nebraska; Smithfield Foods, which
runs a pig-killing factory in Tar Heel, North Carolina; and Tyson Foods, which
operates dozens of poultry processing plants in Northwest Arkansas. Unlike Smithfield
and Tyson, Nebraska Beef refused to cooperate with Human Rights Watch. The former
two companies are very critical of Blood, Sweat and Fear, as is the American
Meat Institute, an industry group.
What is noteworthy about Blood, Sweat and Fear is that it is the first report
by Human Rights Watch, in its nearly 30-year history, that focuses on alleged
human rights violations by a single industry in the United States. Like many
vegetarians, I am not surprised that an industry that profits from violating
animal rights would also be guilty of violating human rights.
While slavery has existed for centuries, the nature of slavery has changed dramatically
during the last several decades. Much of what I have to say about contemporary
slavery owes an intellectual debt to New Slavery (ABC-CLIO, 2000) a handbook
by Kevin Bales, a professor of sociology at the University of Surrey Roehampton
in London, England, and also the author of Disposable People: New Slavery in
the Global Economy [see the Satya interview in
the Dec 02/Jan 03 double issue
on modern slavery].
Bales defines slavery as “a social and economic relationship in which a
person is controlled through violence or its threat, paid nothing, and economically
In New Slavery, Bales focuses on the differences and similarities between the
old and new forms of slavery and how slavery has evolved during recent times.
In the past, a person was usually a slave for his or her entire life. Often a
slave was a significant or major capital investment. Hence, an owner was careful
to assert and document his legal ownership. Also, an owner was usually motivated
to provide sufficient food, shelter and care for his slaves, thereby being able
to maximize his profits.
Contemporary slavery, however, is much different. Overpopulation has created
a sheer abundance of men, women and children who are potential slaves. The resulting
human surplus has caused the price of a slave to plummet. “Slaves of the
past were worth stealing and worth chasing down if they escaped. Today slaves
are so cheap that they are not worth securing permanent ownership,” Bales
notes. “The fact that ownership of slaves is now illegal is not really
a problem for slaveholders; slaves are disposable.”
“Disposability means that the new forms of slavery are less permanent,” writes
Bales. “Across the world the length of time a slave spends in bondage varies
enormously. It is simply not profitable to keep slaves when they are not immediately
useful. Although most are enslaved for years, some are held for only a few months.
In countries where sugarcane is grown, for example, people are often enslaved
for a single harvest. Since they are used only for a short time, there is no
reason to invest heavily in their upkeep. There is also little reason to insure
that they survive their enslavement.”
Slaughter and Suffer
How are many employees in U.S. slaughterhouses akin to contemporary slaves?
First, the differences. Unlike contemporary slaves, meat industry workers are
not physically forced to work. They freely enter the workplace. It is their choice.
Also, slaughterhouse workers are paid for their labor (although the meat industry
resists unionization and tries to pay its workers as little as possible).
However, the similarities between slaughterhouse workers and contemporary slaves
are profound. Both groups are essentially treated like disposable commodities,
and are vulnerable and often controlled by actual or implied violence.
Many slaughterhouse employees are operating at a work pace that it is simply
unsustainable on a daily basis. As one male worker at a Tyson poultry plant,
whose hands were swollen and apparently “fixed in a claw-like position,” told
Human Rights Watch: “I hung live birds on the line. Grab, reach, lift,
jerk. Without stopping for hours every day. Only young, strong guys can do it.
But after a time, you see what happens. Your arms stick out and your hands are
frozen. Look at me now. I’m 22 years old, and I feel like an old man.”
Under such harrowing work conditions, employment at a poultry plant is a short-term
proposition, not a smart career move.
Likewise, on a typical poultry work shift, a worker might make up to 30,000 cutting
motions with a knife. Ultimately, the worker suffers repetitive motion injuries
and frequent accidental wounds. With such physically demanding and dangerous
work, employment is short-term.
Inevitably, when the pace of work is so fast and the conditions, which involve
controlling and killing live animals, are so dangerous, more injuries result.
Not surprisingly, the meatpacking industry has an injury rate that is more than
three times that of the overall private industry in America. Its injury rate
is 20 injuries per 100 workers.
In terms of vulnerability, contemporary slaves are often tricked into work situations
where they find themselves powerless to escape. The fate of many immigrant slaughterhouse
workers is similar. An increasing number of workers in the meat industry are
immigrants and they are usually unaware of their workplace rights. In addition,
as many immigrant workers or their family members are undocumented, they are
afraid to assert their rights or make complaints to government authorities. “The
meatpacking companies hire immigrant workers because they are often the only
ones who will work under such terrible conditions,” says Jamie Fellner,
Director of the U.S. program at Human Rights Watch. “And they exploit the
illegal status of undocumented workers to keep them quiet.” In other words,
speak up and you will lose your livelihood.
Another similarity between contemporary slaves and slaughterhouse workers is
how both groups are controlled by the use of implied or actual physical threats.
It keeps them in place. At a Smithfield plant in November 2003, for example,
a group of night-shift cleaning staff spontaneously left the plant to protest
the dismissal of some coworkers. Smithfield security agents, who have been granted
select police powers under a 1991 North Carolina law, manhandled some of the
workers. A National Labor Relations Board investigation later found that Smithfield
and the security agents had fired eight named employees and several unnamed ones,
caused employees to be falsely arrested, and threatened employees with bodily
harm, among other violations.
As one Smithfield employee from El Salvador told Human Rights Watch investigators, “The
company has armed police walking around the plant to intimidate us. It’s
especially frightening for those of us from Central America. Where we come from,
the police shoot trade unionists.”
An Industry Response
According to the meat industry, the Human Rights Watch report is largely inaccurate.
J. Patrick Boyle, president and CEO of the American Meat Institute, criticized
the report saying, “there are so many refutable claims and irresponsible
accusations contained in this 175-page report that it would take another 175
pages to correct the errors.” According to Boyle, “Worker safety
and retention has to be a high priority if meatpacking companies want to stay
Officials at Smithfield and Tyson denied the report’s claims. “We’re
disappointed by the report’s misleading conclusions,” says Tyson
spokesman Gary Mickelson. “Ensuring our team members are treated fairly
is an integral part of the way we do business.”
Similarly, Smithfield vice president for environmental community and government
affairs, Dennis Treacy, criticized the report and said, “We are proud of
Nebraska Beef has refused to comment on the report.
Why Slavery Exists
Slavery cannot exist without a corrupt or indifferent government. Ditto for unsafe
and dangerous workplace conditions. Poor working conditions exist in slaughterhouses
because of a lack of federal governmental enforcement.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, a division of the Department
of Labor, is responsible for setting workplace standards and laws. Contact: Richard
Fairfax, director of enforcement, OSHA, 200 Constitution Ave., N.W., Washington,
DC, 20210; Fairfax.Richard@dol.gov; (202) 693-2126. Also, write your U.S. Representative
and ask him or her to strengthen OSHA regulations.
Finally, readers who are interested in an animal rights perspective on the connection
between human and animal slavery are encouraged to read Majorie Spiegel’s
The Dreaded Comparison: Human and Animal Slavery (Mirror Books, 1989). It will
change how you look at human slavery.
Blood, Sweat, and Fear is available, free of charge, at www.hrw.org/reports/2005/usa0105/.