If I was a betting woman, I would guess that the majority of people reading this right now did not hear the big news that the animal rights world was atwitter about last month: Idaho’s ag-gag law was struck down! The law that prevented undercover investigations of farming operations, as NPR so succinctly described, is “no more.”

One of the head attorney’s on the case did an AMA on Reddit to discuss the landmark victory the day after the verdict. In the thread, a few people linked to the Mercy for Animals footage that spurred the law into existence in the first place. Understandably, Idaho dairy farmers were trying to suppress its release. You can watch it here, but be warned: if you have never seen footage of inside factory farming operations, it is gruesome. From u/MathhewALDF, the attorney being interviewed:

Thanks for taking the time to watch the video. I know it’s not pleasant to watch, but if animals have to endure it, perhaps we should at least have to witness it. I think one of the most significant things each of us can do is simply to refuse to participate in this cruelty by boycotting animal products and adopting a vegan diet. It’s easier than it’s ever been before (I say this having been vegan for 16 years).

Sympathizing with the animals is easy. It’s nauseating to watch workers kick them, beat them with steel rods, jump on their backs, and drag them, helpless, with machinery across the floor. But there is another victim that these videos reveal, and it is the workers themselves.

When asked why I’m vegan, people are shocked to hear that human rights is one of the reasons. When discussing factory farming, people are generally so overwhelmed by the atrocities being committed against the animals that the atrocities committed against the workers go unnoticed. So unnoticed that factory farming operations are one of the only workplace environments in the United States that Human Rights Watch has cited with major human rights violations, and very few people know about it. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights established the following guidelines for workers’ rights:

  • a safe and healthful workplace,
  • compensation for workplace injuries and illnesses,
  • freedom of association and the right to form trade unions and bargain collectively
  • equality of conditions and rights for immigrant workers

As an author, sponsor, and signer of the UDHR, the United States government committed itself to upholding the rights outlined above, and yet the meat and poultry industries systemically violate all of them.

Meatpacking work is extremely dangerous. According to the HRW report, “nearly every worker interviewed for this report bore physical signs of serious injury suffered from working in a meat or poultry plant.” The automated lines that carry carcasses from station to station move too quickly. Workers, who are assigned to specific stations, repeat the same motion thousands of times during each shift, putting enormous stress on their bodies. They labor in close quarters, and the hours are long. If they refuse to work overtime, they are often unceremoniously fired.

I know that I quote Eating Animals all of the time, but Jonathan Safran Foer’s eloquence can really hit home a point:

“… of course there are laws about how you can treat the workers, and this sort of labor tends to leave people in pain for days afterward, so, again, be sure you hire those who won’t be in a position to complain– people like “Maria,” an employee of one of the largest chicken processors in California, with whom I spent an afternoon. After more than forty years of work, and five surgeries due to work-related injuries, Maria no longer has enough use of her hands to do the dishes. She is in such constant pain that she spends her evenings soaking her arms in ice water, and often can’t fall asleep without pills. She is paid eight dollars an hour, and asked that I not use her real name, for fear of retribution.” (page 132)

In order for meat and poultry producers to fill these types of positions, they often actively recruit from Mexico and Central America. Tyson has been said to encourage employees to invite friends and family members to apply for work. It is estimated that 38% of all factory farm workers are from outside of the U.S. and are undocumented. The goal of these companies is painfully clear: find a workforce that cannot complain.

Here is a Tyson job description:

Title: Eviseration
Tasks: Jobs are fast paced and require repetitive gripping, pushing, lifting, pinching, and pulling. Frequently use a knife scissors. Ability to lift up to 5 lbs. frequently and the ability to lift up to 25 lbs. occasionally. Jobs require standing on hard surface for up to 10 hours per day. Will rotate to various positions within the department and perform additional tasks as assigned by Supervisor. The average temperature ranging from 40-75 degrees.

By their own admission, the eviseration station requires repetitive motion. It also requires the use of sharp tools (knives and scissors) for up to 10 hours a day. If this is Tyson’s white-washed representation of what the job is like, it’s horrible to imagine what it must be in actuality. In the midst of such desperate working conditions, is it so hard to believe that workers would succomb to the pressure of keeping the slaughter line moving? With figures as high as 300 cattle being processed an hour (which means some workers make five cuts every fifteen seconds), it is not surprising that upwards of 25% of employees are injured every year.

Perhaps worse than the physical toll is the emotional one. Below are two quotes from a hog-sticker at Morrell slaughterhouse plant in Sioux City, Iowa:

“The worst thing, worse than the physical danger, is the emotional toll. If you work in the stick pit for any period of time, you develop an attitude that lets you kill things but doesn’t let you care. You may look a hog in the eye that’s walking around down in the blood pit with you and thing, God, that really isn’t a bad looking animal. You make want to pet it. Pigd 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. I can’t care.”

“Another time, there was a live hog in the pit. It hadn’t done anything wrong, wasn’t even running around the pit. It was just alive. I took a three-foot chunk of pipe—two-inch diameter pipe—and I literally beat that hog to death. Couldn’t have been a two-inch piece of solid bone left in its head. . . . It was like I started hitting the hog and I couldn’t stop. And when I finally did stop, I’d expended all this energy and frustration, and I’m thinking, what in God’s sweet name did I do? . . . People go into Morrell expecting respect and good working conditions. They come out with carpal tunnel, tendonitis, alcoholism, you name it, because they’re under incredible pressure and they’re expected to perform under intolerable conditions. Or they develop a sadistic sense of reality.”

Maybe all if this could be stomach-able if it was absolutely necessary; after all, meat produced in factory farms feeds a large portion of our population. People flock to this fact as an excuse, with trains of thought like: “Of course the conditions are terrible for everyone (animals and human) involved, but there isn’t a more efficient way to produce cheap food.” If only that were true. Factory farming is that it is a laughably inefficient way to feed the world, and large scale factory farming is responsible for compounding global poverty. Factory farmed animals have been bred to eat cereals, soy products, and corn, which means that we are putting feeding farmed animals in direct competition with feeding humans. High quality, nutrient-rich foods is being given to our livestock instead of to those of us who need it most.

It is estimated that 97% of soy produced in the entire world is used for animal feed. In places like Paraguay, that means that significant tracts of land (including valuable forests) are being raised to make way for crops. People indigenous to the region are no longer able to feed themselves, as they have done historically from resources found in the vanishing forests.

Philip Wollen, the former VP of Citibank and also a committed vegan, gave an excellent speech called “Animals Should Be Off the Menu.” It’s only ten or so minutes long, and I highly recommend a listen. In it, he notes:

“Poor countries sell their grain to the West while their own children starve in their arms. And we feed it to livestock. So we can eat a steak? Am I the only one who sees this as a crime? Every morsel of meat we eat is slapping the tear-stained face of a starving child. When I look into her eyes, should I be silent?”

I decided that I could not be silent, and I have to believe that the majority of people feel this way. Volumes could be written on the horrors that factory farming inflicts upon humans, but since they happen to marginalized and minority populations, this news rarely breaks into the mainstream media. It’s truly sickening, but the good news is that we can make a difference. We can choose compassion for humans and for animals.

I will end with one more quotation: “Compassion is a muscle that gets stronger with use, and the regular exercise of choosing kindness over cruelty would change us.”