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’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.