Abattoir workers are the forgotten frontline victims at the heart of this crisis – and now they’re spreading coronavirus

Staff in slaughterhouses are paid the minimum wage despite suffering from post-traumatic stress and other side effects of their brutal work. And now they're at high risk of contracting Covid-19

Chas Newkey-Burden
Wednesday 01 July 2020 08:24
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Conditions in abattoirs are said to allow the virus to thrive.mp4

Do you want slaughterhouse workers to do the dirty work for you? Millions in Britain take it for granted that someone else will kill their dinner on their behalf. That’s how they’re able to eat dead animals while still seeing themselves as animal lovers.

Animal slaughter is very dirty work. Although cows, sheep, pigs and chickens are the main victims, vulnerable humans are also being exploited and abused in secret. Psychologists say it’s causing post-traumatic stress disorder, perpetration-induced traumatic stress and a range of other horrifying syndromes. Unsurprisingly, studies have found that slaughterhouse work is connected to higher incidents of domestic violence, alcohol and drug abuse.

How would you fare if you had to kill a pig yourself, or a cow or a sheep? A worker at a chicken plant said one of his fellow workers was “hauled off to the mental hospital” after he “kept having nightmares that chickens were after him”. These blood-soaked workers have to take many lives in every shift. A man who slaughtered young pigs said: “Pigs down on the kill floor have come up and nuzzled me like a puppy. Two minutes later I had to kill them – beat them to death with a pipe.”

Studies have found that these workers become desensitised and display levels of aggression similar to prison populations. Between 2009 and 2016, the animal welfare group Animal Aid secretly filmed inside 11 randomly chosen slaughterhouses in the UK. In shocking scenes, they found workers stubbing out cigarettes in pigs’ faces, and animals being stamped on, beaten and punched. Lame, terrified animals were kicked as they dragged themselves along the slaughterhouse floor. Sheep were smashed headfirst against solid structures.

Workers face physical horrors too. A recent study found that in six years, 800 UK abattoir workers suffered serious injuries, 78 required amputations and four died while at work.

There is no danger money for this: many workers in the slaughter industry are paid the minimum wage. It is rare to find anyone who sought out this work. Often they are living in desperate circumstances themselves. Another study warned that criminal groups have been trafficking foreign nationals to work in UK slaughterhouses, particularly in the run up to Christmas.

Now, Covid-19 is proving a new physical danger to these workers. Week after week, fresh outbreaks of the virus keep emerging in abattoirs in England, Wales, the US, Canada, Ireland and Germany.

Slaughterhouses are noisy places, which means workers shout to communicate, increasing the risk of airborne transmission. They’re also kept cold, which helps viruses spread. Many of the workers live in cramped hostels where social distancing is not possible. They can’t afford cars so they travel to work on crowded buses.

This week, a new strain of flu with the potential to become a pandemic was identified in China. Researchers said the infections started in people who worked in abattoirs and the pig industry.

Professor James Wood, head of the department of veterinary medicine at the University of Cambridge, told the BBC the news “comes as a salutary reminder” that human contact with farmed animals often acts as the source of pandemic viruses.

It is widely thought that coronavirus originated in a “wet market” in China, and a recent white paper found that nearly every major zoonotic disease outbreak of the last 120 years is inextricably linked to animal exploitation.

It’s often said that if slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be vegan. Seeing what really goes on would make everyone take the horrors more seriously. But brick walls can’t completely shield the public from the truth. People are becoming more aware. And we’ve seen it in enough movies too: the people inside the mad house get bitten first, but then the Frankenstein animals always escape. If you make a sick place, the sickness will find a way out.

Humans kill 70bn land animals every year for their meat and this causes huge suffering for the animals, huge damage to the environment and huge harm to human society.

Delicious vegan food is available. It’s often healthy and can be very good value. It could hardly be clearer that eating meat is morally and ethically wrong. So why don’t we all just stop?

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