- Zombification, Social Death, and the Slaughterhouse:U.S. Industrial Practices of Livestock Slaughter
In an August 2016 interview with National Public Radio, Gloria Sarmiento, a representative for the labor advocacy group Nebraska Appleseed, recalled workers' comments on the horrific conditions facing employees working on "the chain" in U.S. American slaughterhouses: "The speed of the line is really fast. The supervisors are yelling all the time…. They are treating us like animals."1 The article covered the hidden stories of many employees in U.S. American slaughterhouses (also called abattoirs): "most often immigrants and resettled refugees, slaughter and process hundreds of animals an hour, forced to work at high speeds in cold conditions, doing thousands of the same repetitions over and over, with few breaks."2 It introduced the people behind the raw tenderloins sitting in the supermarket, those responsible for ensuring that each American can consume an unprecedented 200 pounds of meat per year. In a further effort to rehumanize the forgotten workers, Oxfam America's Oliver Gottfried remembered a striking testimonial given by one abattoir employee about agricultural executives: "If they care this much about their animals, why can't they care about their people?"3
From an animal liberationist perspective, these sets of statements could be (and very often are) considered hyperbolic at best, "speciesist"4 at worst. By critiquing the economic conditions of slaughterhouse employees at the expense of the slaughtered animals, these workers and their advocates in the news media seem to refuse to heed scholar Carrie Packwood Freeman's warning that "the [End Page 81] treatment of farmed animals and their breeding for food constitutes a social issue which the news media have an obligation to present fairly for public debate."5
One could say that slaughterhouse employees may be overworked and underpaid, but they are not being poked and prodded by electric prongs to move faster toward the slaughter line and, subsequently, the end of their lives. One might argue that these workers, though systemically underprotected, are still not necessarily subject to the particularly unique mode of "reproductive tyranny"6 that turns hens and cows into unwilling, unwitting baby-producing machines and kills them for meat once they are "spent." One can point out that annual abattoir worker death tolls do not even reach the hundreds, let alone 10 billion, which is the number of livestock animals slaughtered per year by the U.S. American agriculture industry. After all, in 2017, approximately 8,916,097,000 chickens, 240,011,000 turkeys, 121,372,000 pigs, 32,189,000 adult cattle, 512,000 calves, 26,628,000 ducks, and 2,178,000 sheep were slaughtered for meat in the United States alone.7
In response to the above critiques, this article argues that the rhetorical "weighting" of such oppressions is ultimately counterproductive to the aims of intersectional, interspecies justice. Whoever has suffered "more" or "worse" or "in what capacity" is not a fruitful lens by which to study animal and/or human rights. Rather, instead of being studied in opposition to each other, the intersecting and often co-constituting oppressions of Homo sapiens and other species in the U.S. American livestock industry must be studied in relation to one another. It is important to note that despite the differences in degree in many of these instances of abuse, they are in large part similar in kind. That is to say, they are a part of broader spectrums of systemic inequality and state-sanctioned violence. These ideological and material inequalities, despite having different species subjects, are not distinct from one another but, rather, mutually constitutive.8
Indeed, to ignore the plight of slaughterhouse workers is to ignore a key corner of the intersectional labyrinth that is the pursuit of social justice. Ecofeminist rhetorician Richard Rogers highlights how human and animal issues are inextricably linked to broader systems of power. Scholars and activists interested in issues of animal and/or human rights must take seriously theories of intersectionality in their analyses wherein "the very categories of domination and subordination (which also include nationality, ethnicity, sexuality, and ability) [are] mutually constitutive, pointing to an interdependence between and lack of any firm foundation...