I Stopped Eating Animals Because of Human Rights
What does the meat industry do to people’s mental health?
I Stopped Eating Animals Because of Human Rights
By Andy West / opendemocracy.net

At the age of 17 I rolled my eyes at the mention of vegetarians. They seemed to have gotten their priorities wrong. How could they care for animals above humans? To me, they looked more sentimental than ethical.

Then, at 18, I became one too. Animal welfare arguments had nothing to do with my change of heart. To be honest, I was too self-absorbed to care about the lives of animals. Nor did I stop eating meat for environmental reasons. With a youthful sense of invincibility, I was certain the apocalypse wasn’t heading in my direction.

I stopped eating animals because I saw the effects of the meat industry on the people who work in it. Let me explain.

When I was 17, I got a cleaning job in a hospital. The shifts were three hours long but I could get the work done in about 45 minutes. During the shift I’d meet up with a few other cleaners and we’d go out to get chicken and chips for our tea. The boss didn’t care as long as we were back in time to clock out. I thought I’d landed my dream job.

One morning soon after my 18th birthday, I was told that I’d been switched to the mental health ward, so I went to my new post through four sets of security doors and started wiping tables. Minutes later, a patient approached me.

He was an older man, stocky and bleary-eyed. He stood just centimeters away from me, clearly having no sense of personal space. Glancing down, I noticed his fingernails had been bitten away and the skin around them was dry and inflamed. 

He leant in and said, ‘I’m gonna stab you.’

I froze.

‘I’m gonna stab you and watch you die.’

He wasn’t holding a knife, but that didn’t make me any less afraid.

Then he put his face in his hands and shook his head. ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to.’ 

I grabbed my cleaning cloth and went to the other end of the ward to get away from him. Less than an hour later he was back, threatening to strangle me this time, telling me he was going to watch my face turn pink, then red, then blue. And, just like before, he flitted from intimidation to remorse and begged me to forgive him.

The next day I handed in my notice. Throughout the remaining weeks, this deeply troubled man continued his threat-apology-threat-apology routine. I wished I could learn to laugh at it like the other cleaners did.

During one of my final shifts he approached me again, but this time he didn’t threaten me. His medication had been changed. He seemed more lucid. We chatted about football and I learned that his name was Jez. He told me that before being sectioned he’d worked in a slaughterhouse. One of his jobs was to carry around a sack and collect the heads of the animals.

I wondered about the violence of Jez’s daily threats and the violence of his old job. Could his debilitating swings between murderousness and guilt have been exacerbated, if not caused, by the workaday experience of clearing away mutilated bodies in a slaughterhouse?

If so, his experience is not untypical. In 1905 the writer Upton Sinclair observed that slaughterhouse workers were often involved in fights after leaving work: “for men who crack the heads of animals all day seem to get into the habit, and to practice on their friends.” Some say this ‘Sinclair effect’ is due less to the work itself and more to factors like the young male demographic that’s characteristic of slaughterhouses, the immigrant populations that abattoirs tend to employ, the social instability that an influx of newcomers can bring to large slaughterhouse towns, or just to the general effects of unemployment.

To test these hypotheses, a study in the US compared crime rates between 1994 and 2002 for 581 boomtown counties that had large numbers of slaughterhouses or comparative industries like iron and steel forging or truck trailer manufacturing. The following factors were controlled for: young males, poverty, national and international migrants, unemployment, and population density.

The study found that slaughterhouse counties confirmed the ‘Sinclair effect.’ Arrests for violent and sexual crime were significantly greater in slaughterhouse boomtowns, with rape arrests reaching 166% higher in counties with large numbers of abattoirs.

This is not just a problem in the USA. A Brazilian study in 2012 compared the effects of workplace stress on mental health for three groups: laborers on the cutting floor of poultry plants, slaughterhouse administration staff, and university students. Whilst students only scored 10% higher than administrative staff in terms of their levels of anxiety, cutting floor workers scored 70% higher than administrators. In terms of depression, students scored 1.7% higher than administrative staff whereas cutting floor workers scored 67% higher than administrators.

This isn’t surprising, since working conditions in the poultry cutting sector involve intense cold (at temperatures as low as 7°C), layers of dirt from entrails and the odor of excrement, squirts of blood to the face and body (because importers require birds to be killed manually), repetitive work, and the impossibility of human interaction due to the intense noise.

In the UK, hidden cameras in ‘organic’ and ‘humane’ slaughterhouses revealed images of jaded workers who were so de-sensitized to violence that they kicked and punched animals in the head, put cigarettes out on their faces, hacked at their throats with blunt knives, threw them around, and laughed and swore while killing them. Were these workers morally corrupt before working in an abattoir, or was there something about being financially rewarded for killing animals eight hours per day that had warped their behavior?

In research carried out at the University of Colorado, 85% of people said that they wouldn’t kill an animal for food, yet buying meat means that other people are required to kill for a living. The tension between wanting meat and not wanting to slaughter for it means that brutality gets outsourced to distant abattoirs. This allows us to either forget about the well-being of the people who work in slaughterhouses, or worse still, hold them in contempt for doing a job we don’t want to do.

The Burakumin people, for example, have lived for centuries as a segregated underclass in Japan. Historically, they were forced to wear tell-tale clothing and still face discrimination today; there was public outcry when Google Earth included Buraku villages on their feudal period maps. It’s the Burakumin who slaughter cows and prepare Japan’s world renowned wagyu beef—a task for which many Burakumin receive death threats. Japan, like the West, gives its unclean jobs to people who are believed to be unclean. These attitudes, formed of the conflict between desire and repulsion, remind me of the man who visits a sex worker for his gratification, only to label her a prostitute as he leaves. 

I left my job at the hospital when I was 18. Shortly afterwards I left home too. For the first time in my life I began to buy the bulk of what I was eating myself. More than just a choice, what I ate was now my responsibility. During my first weekly shop I picked up a pack of sausages. The wholesomely green packaging featured a drawing of an idyllic pastoral field. I looked at thesecareful marketing strategies—designed to make it easy for me to block out my awareness of the human cost of my food—and gave a sad smile. I put the sausages back on the shelf and walked on. 

It’s a human right to work in a mentally healthy workplace, but the evidence suggests that the meat industry doesn’t take that right seriously. At 17, I thought a vegetarian was someone who didn’t have enough regard for human suffering. In fact, the opposite is true. 

Andy West has written for the Guardian about subjects like working class life and alcohol. He is a contributor to the award-winning  Philosophy Shop and lives in London, where he works as a conflict mediator and teaches philosophy to children. He tweets  @AndyWPhilosophy.

0.0 ·
What's Next
Trending Today
Your Lifestyle Has Already Been Designed (The Real Reason For The Forty-Hour Workweek)
David Cain · 21,231 views today · Well I’m in the working world again. I’ve found myself a well-paying gig in the engineering industry, and life finally feels like it’s returning to normal after my nine months...
Dinosaur explains Trump policies better than Trump!
8 min · 12,944 views today · Donald Trump is actually the corporate triceratops, Mr. Richfield, from the 90's TV show sitcom, "Dinosaurs". 
No Moral Superpower: Arundhati Roy, Edward Snowden, and the Crimes of Empire
Jake Johnson · 7,282 views today · When Arundhati Roy was preparing, in 2014, for a trip to Moscow to meet Edward Snowden, she was troubled by two things. One of them was the fact that the meeting was arranged...
Noam Chomsky Has 'Never Seen Anything Like This'
Chris Hedges · 6,999 views today · Noam Chomsky is America’s greatest intellectual. His massive body of work, which includes nearly 100 books, has for decades deflated and exposed the lies of the power elite...
And After the Election, The Reaction
Ret Marut · 4,537 views today · Could there be any better illustration of the shortcomings of representative democracy than this year’s Presidential campaign? For months upon tiresome months, the whole world...
'The Climate of Fear Is Unacceptable' - Ken Loach on I, Daniel Blake
6 min · 3,692 views today · Ken Loach’s Palme d’Or-winning film I, Daniel Blake tells the story of a man who is denied disability benefit after a heart attack and who is then subsequently caught in a...
Men Loving Men
Bianca Vivion · 2,432 views today · When my father was seven he and his best friend Phil cut their index fingers open and placed them together to create a “blood pact” that they would always be brothers. To this...
Three Massive Mergers - Millions for One Bank and a Disaster for Food, Water, and Climate
Wenonah Hauter · 2,372 views today · In addition to advising on all three mega-mergers, Credit Suisse is playing a big role behind the scenes of the Dakota Access pipeline.
What Makes Call-Out Culture So Toxic
Asam Ahmad · 2,220 views today · Call-out culture refers to the tendency among progressives, radicals, activists, and community organizers to publicly name instances or patterns of oppressive behaviour and...
Today I Rise: This Beautiful Short Film Is Like a Love Poem For Your Heart and Soul
4 min · 2,082 views today · "The world is missing what I am ready to give: My Wisdom, My Sweetness, My Love and My hunger for Peace." "Where are you? Where are you, little girl with broken wings but full...
Social Geographer Shows How Much of You is Determined by Where You're From
3 min · 1,838 views today · The Professor of Geography examines social inequality and the geodemographics of the UK, using maps created by Oliver O'Brien (UCL, CASA) in 2012 and updated in 2015. You can...
Writers Tom Hayden and Naomi Klein Talk About Journalism and Activism
27 min · 1,556 views today · Author, Activist and Former California State Senator Tom Hayden talks in depth with the author of No Logo and The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein, about the state of the fourth...
A Beautiful Reflection on What It Means to Be Human
8 min · 1,282 views today · Hello! We are Oh Wonder, a musical duo from London. We believe that everyone is equal. We are all human. We all deserve the world. And we can build that equality by sharing...
Heartbreaking Animation Reveals Plight of Animals Under Threat of Extinction
3 min · 1,213 views today · This stunning and heartbreaking animation gives voice to animals under threat from human activity. Made as part of the Wildlife Conservation Film Festival, it features a...
Grow Heathrow: Residents Resisting Eviction Over 3rd Runway
4 min · 1,073 views today · On March 1st 2010 Transition Heathrow members swooped on an abandoned market garden site in Sipson; one of the villages to be completely tarmacked to make way for a third...
Speaking Out Against Australia's Unforgiving Refugee Policy
42 min · 1,069 views today · The Forgotten Children: More than a hundred child refugees are stuck in asylum limbo on the island of Nauru as a result of Australia's harsh and unsympathetic border policies...
How Big Banks Launder Money and Get Away With It
9 min · 875 views today · 'I wrote about how money laundering was actually done... they spiked it.' Parliamentary Candidate David Malone was a popular second choice in the UK Green Party leadership...
John Lennon's "Imagine," Made Into a Comic Strip
John Lennon. Art by Pablo Stanley · 756 views today · This is easily the best comic strip ever made.  Pabl
Why I Didn't Vote Trump or Hillary
Joe Brewer · 720 views today ·   This is my ballot. It arrived in the mail where I live in Washington state — and I’ve already sent it back to the elections committee. Note how I didn’t vote for either...
The White Man in That Photo
Riccardo Gazzaniga · 560 views today · Sometimes photographs deceive. Take this one, for example. It represents John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s rebellious gesture the day they won medals for the 200 meters at the...
Load More
Like us on Facebook?
I Stopped Eating Animals Because of Human Rights