Exposing an uncalculated human cost of animal slaughter

“There goes a killer.”

In South Africa, abattoirs can be found in almost every town. These facilities, many of which slaughter in the hundreds of thousands of pigs, cattle and sheep annually, have been the subject of increasing scrutiny in recent years due to growing public concern for animal welfare.

QHW_CoverYet — it was the employees, specifically the people whose hands perform the actual killing, who captured the attention of researcher Karen Victor. Victor, a psychologist, is first author of the article Slaughtering for a living: A hermeneutic phenomenological perspective on the well-being of slaughterhouse employees. Her research was recently published in the International Journal of Qualitative Studies on Health and Well-being.

“There goes a killer” are words she recorded in conversation with a slaughterhouse floor employee engaged in her study. He was describing life at work; how floor employees were treated by workers further removed from the slaughtering itself.

The Slaughterhouse Floor

In 2009, Victor had been recently hired as an industrial relations officer at a South Africa abattoir. Her position involved working closely with line employees on the slaughterhouse floor; serving as an intermediary between them and management.

From her first days on the job, her first tour of the factory floor, she was struck by what she terms as the brutality. She says that while witnessing the animals being slaughtered was disturbing, her concern quickly shifted to that of the workers, and the impact that the act of killing, in repetition, had on them.

“There is a buzz of conversation within parts of society around the politics and ethics of eating meat, but few people are talking about the welfare of those working in the blood and gore,” said Victor. “Considering that most people do eat meat, it occurred to me that this is a critical oversight.”

Victor, employed at DAWN HR Solutions, approached Antoni Barnard with the idea of pursuing such a study, and carrying it out at the abattoir that employs her. Barnard, a faculty member in the Department of Industrial and Organisational Psychology at the University of South Africa, was intrigued.

“Surprisingly few studies have explored this line of research,” she said.

Recurring Nightmares

According to Victor and Barnard’s article, the abattoir where the study was conducted is a large commercial, Halaal-certified facility with the capacity to process up to 2000 cattle a day. Study participants involved only employees responsible for the actual killing act, which at this facility involved “stunning the animal unconscious with a captive bolt on the head and then killing the unconscious animal by cutting its jugular vein.”

Fourteen subjects were involved in the study, and were engaged in a series of probing interviews during which each shared their work and life experiences, beginning with their first days adjusting to “slaughtering animals in a work setting that is cold, bloody and smelly”.

What Victor and Barnard learned was disturbing.

The subjects revealed feelings of trauma and fear, physical shock and shame that surged when they began their work at the abattoir, and transmuted into numbness over time.

“I admit I also once cut myself on purpose with a knife, just to feel. To be honest you know the work is so hard if you cut yourself you are actually glad and you know for a month or so you will just walk around light duty” – one subject was quoted in the paper as saying.

They also shared stories of recurring nightmares.

“One day I dream that the cow gets out at the stunning box. It was alive. Then, I think that I am crying and running, and that time I am not running. Down here! Down here! [motioning that he fell down]. The cow is coming and you fall down! You fall down!”

And repercussions from the trauma can be violent.

Among those interviewed for this study, abusive behavior toward wives, girlfriends and children, and pets; as well as excessive alcohol use, was common. “The ripple effect on families and societies is profound,” said Victor. “Aggression builds – and is eventually released on those around them.”

These are people, adds Victor, on the lower rungs of the social ladder; they are struggling to survive, and living in poor conditions. Their choices of employment are few.

Victor and Barnard did find though that there are commonalities among those who better cope with the work: a more secure and stable home life; and spirituality and/or religious beliefs.

Both authors hope the article will spur further studies into the impact of slaughterhouse work on employees; they also suggest human resources’ departments within such facilities use their findings to incorporate programs that help employees better cope with the work.

Access Victor and Barnard’s article in full.

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