By Nick Pendergrast
I did the following interview with an anonymous Halal slaughterhouse worker in Western Australia and it was published years ago in the magazine Vegan Voice, which is no longer in operation. Since being published in the magazine it has showed up and disappeared in various places online. It’s great that it has been shared around online and I encourage people to put it up wherever they like. But I thought it’d also be worth posting it here, just in case it disappears from the other places online at some point, as I think the worker I interviewed gives a frank and insightful perspective on this industry that is mostly hidden from public view. While this workers’ story is unique, it is also interesting to see a remarkable amount of overlap between their account and the experiences of other slaughterhouse workers that I have read about – see the links at the end for some larger-scale studies of slaughterhouse work. At the time of publishing this, the interview is available online here in the magazine version that was originally published, with pictures etc, if people would rather read the information that way.
A content warning that the interview contains frequent and some graphic descriptions of violence and harm to animals.
How did you become a slaughterhouse worker?
Lack of any other job in the country, really. I was either picking vegetables which a lot of times you got to have machine tickets for, or you had to just go get a manual labouring job and the meatworks were always hiring and they pay pretty good. So it was just, you know, random chance. I know after talking to some of my friends on the weekend that the beef abattoirs are now paying 45 dollars an hour. The demand is there for workers and they really do pay pretty well, and a lot of other places just can’t compete with that sort of money. So it was greed, unfortunately.
How long did you work there?
Four months. I was there for a month, didn’t like it, went on to do some labouring. I just wasn’t earning enough to cover my bills, so I had to go back.
How did the experience of working in a slaughterhouse compare with your expectations of what it would be like?
A lot messier, a lot more violent, a lot more brutal. I didn’t expect the sort of conditions and cruelty that I seen there. And I thought, because we had quality control experts there and a veterinarian on staff ‘ But they really didn’t seem to care. They were there for the money just like we were. And they just kept putting the product through — that’s all they were worried about.
Can you describe each stage of the process of turning a live animal into food on the public’s plate?
Well, the goats are rounded up with choppers, shotguns, explosives — things like that so they’re scared — and herded onto trucks. The trucks come in and I think the worst day was 25 dead animals off the truck just from sheer overloading. Then they’re put in the marshalling yards and left to starve for a couple of days so they clean their stomach out. Because you’re not allowed to, well, I’m not sure if you’re not allowed to, but our practice was you don’t slaughter an animal with a full stomach because there’s more chance of inexperienced workers bursting the stomach, tainting the meat and not being able to use it.
After being in the marshalling yards anywhere from a day to a week, they’re brought up into holding pens, again using loud noises to scare the animals. A lot of the goats we dealt with were feral and we were like the second or third human they’d ever seen in their entire existence.
They’re kept in very small pens, crammed in there so you don’t have to go and get them out of the marshalling yards as often. Then they’re herded in up a race, then up a conveyor belt and electro-stun to the back of the head. When the animals are wet, the electro-charge doesn’t distribute across the brain properly, so a lot of the time you’d have to do it two or three times. And you’re not trained in it; they just sort of say, ‘Well, you point it in that direction and you put the electrodes there.’
You hear the animals scream, their eyes will roll back in their head, their tails will curl up, they’ll piss and shit blood. The conveyor belt was a series of paddles and a lot of times their skin would get caught in that and get torn open. So the animal was in constant suffering from the time it’s herded, to put on a truck, to the electro-stun.
Then, because it was a halal slaughterhouse, the Muslim cleric would say his prayer dedicated to Allah and slit the animal’s throat. Then it was supposed to be left to bleed out for 20 minutes. Generally they’d be left for about five minutes, if that. A lot of times the animal would still be kicking, still be alive, when its head and tail were removed, which is the next stage.
They’d be hung out inverted, so they’d bleed out and drain out. You’d cut the tail off. You’d then have to snap the neck and cut the head off. A lot of the times when you’re doing that the animal was still alive. People used to get kicked by the animals, so they’d punch them back. I mean, the animals, you know, are dying — what’s the point in hitting a creature suffering that much?
Then the hooves would get cut off. Meanwhile, you could still see the animal visibly twitching, you could still see the life in the meat. And I’ve gone through all stages and even to the point where they’d go in the chillers, they’d still be twitching. There’d still be ‘ you could tell there was some sign of life or activity going on there.
But before they’d cut the hooves they’d use a bio-saw to cut through the brisket. Then they’d cut the top hooves off, turn them upside down, cut the bottom hooves off. Then the gutter would open up the stomach through a small incision where the bowel is, put his knife in with the blade facing outwards and slide that down so all the stomach would spill open (well, without actually bursting the intestines). Then the gutter would have to hold the stomach with all his weight and run the knife down both sides of the backbone, separating the stomach and the intestines and the organs.
They’d get chucked down a chute, and most of the time they’d burst and spill on the floor. Our meat inspector was supposed to check the heart, liver, lungs and kidneys for disease, but a lot of times he wouldn’t bother.
After the stomach came out it was up to the trimmers to trim off all the excess bits of fur and faeces and milk, stuff like that. And then it would go straight into the chillers. This would take anywhere from, I reckon, 10—15 minutes, from the time the animal was killed until it got into the chillers.
So you found that halal wasn’t any more humane than standard practice.
No, well, they said that Allah forbids an animal being bashed on the head, no animal fighting, no unclean animals — it’s supposed to be a lot nicer and happier for the animal. But, you know, when the electro-stun didn’t work and they’d go through the chute a lot of them had their throats slit while they were still alive, still kicking. The idea is that it’s supposed to distribute the charge over the brain so they don’t feel any pain, but generally it would just immobilise them because they’d still be screaming, they’d still be kicking and twitching — still trying to run while they’re laying there sideways having their throat slit. And it’s this sort of thing that sticks with you, this sort of thing that you remember for a very long time. Can you still hear the lambs screaming, Clarice? Can you still hear the lambs? That sort of thing.
Which sections of the slaughterhouse did you work in?
I worked from one end to the other because I was a good worker. I even used to work out the back trimming, salting and stacking the skins. I just learnt quick, I suppose, either that or I was terrible at every job and they couldn’t figure out where to put me. [Laughs.] But no, I used to try and do my job to the best of my ability. I got a few cuts and bruises to prove it. But yeah, every process, every single part of it, you know, is just turning life into a machine. That’s all it is. Get the product out, get the product out. Who cares? You gotta do what you gotta do.
The animals in the cages are whipped and beaten. There’d be the stockman out the back and when an animal would fight back, you know, they’d take chains and crowbars to them, like, beat them into submission. A lot of the time when I was trimming the skins you could see the foot or knuckle bruises where people had punched into the animals when they were alive. As I say, when people were chopping off the tails and they’d get a kick in the chin, they’d lay into the animal. And it’s laying there dying, it’s its last moments. What are you going to prove, you know? I saw it as a defence mechanism, because a lot of people didn’t want to accept it: it’s not me, it’s the animal. And that comes down to psychology, but I don’t know enough about that to comment on it. I’m just speaking from experience.
Unfortunately I’m still a carnivore — or omnivore, I should say — but there has got to be better ways of doing it than that. And like I say, even when I’d voice problems, or anyone else would voice a problem, it would take days before anything got fixed. Sheep and goats aren’t meant to be transported when they’re pregnant, but nearly every second mutton that we’d do would have a foetus in it, anywhere from a tiny little lamb like this big [motions a size of about 10cm x 10cm] to full grown, ready-to-fall. If they gave birth in the marshalling yard while they were waiting, well, the animal technically didn’t belong to anyone, so it would have to be put down.
When it would get really cold at night the animals would huddle together and a lot of them would get crushed. Again, that was from overloading of the pens. The pens would be this deep [motions approximately 30cm] in faeces and mud, so a lot of the time — like when sheep slip over and stay on their side too long, they get like a toxic shock — poisons get released from their stomach or their muscles, and it would ruin their balance centre in their brain and they wouldn’t be able to walk any more.
The process was supposed to be that you’d do a ‘dead run’ first thing in the morning — basically any animal that’s in pain you’d have to kill. Now sometimes these animals, they’d either die on their own or they’d lay there till three or four in the afternoon and we’d start killing at six. Other animals would come through with big canker sores and maggots and wounds, like, whole legs ballooned up with maggots, and they’d just be left in a pen until somebody could be bothered coming over to shoot them. And every time somebody would voice an opinion, say something should be done, it would just be, ‘Yeah, we’ll get the product through, we’ll deal with that tomorrow, we’ll deal with that tomorrow.’
They never bothered shutting the plant down until major machines broke down, like the day the conveyor belt from the race broke down, you know, we shut down for a week until they fixed it. Then when they fixed it, it was actually pulling more chunks of skin and doing more damage to the animal. They said, ‘Oh, don’t worry, the chain will stretch, it will wear in.’ There was no consideration at all, it was just a matter of product, product, product. That’s all they cared about.
How many animals do you estimate were killed each day at the slaughterhouse where you worked?
Anywhere from 650 to 800. I think our biggest day was 820. We used to get a bonus for killing more than 700. If we killed more than 750 animals a day, for a certain amount a day you were over, you got 10 cents or 20 cents bonus per head. So basically they’re paying you to push it through quicker, they’re giving you more money to ignore the bleeding time, to ignore stunning, ignore best practice. Nobody’s taught proper animal husbandry. I actually had to ask the vet the best way to pick up a sheep.
Were there many cases of disease and other conditions among the animals at the slaughterhouse?
Many of them had the scap [diarrhoea] — their back legs would be covered in it. The marshalling pens, like the fences, were in real bad disrepair and they’d actually lose eyes because they’d be that overloaded. We had animals being attacked by crows and foxes, losing eyes. Foxes would eat their way in through the anus, then in through the intestines, whereas crows would start at the eyeballs and peck at the brain — and a lot of these animals would still be alive.
If the vet deemed it was, like, 90 per cent good, he’d still put it through — just cut this off, just cut that off. The incidence of disease ‘ I’d have to say about 50 per cent. A lot of the time they would have some form of large cyst on them, or maggot-infested dags or wounds or canker sores, or lack of iron, or a crippled leg due to overloading or the handling techniques. Yeah, at least 50 per cent of the animals would have some form of injury or illness, quite easily.
And when they were diseased the whole thing wasn’t thrown out — they’d just cut around it? The rest was used?
There were ones that would come through ‘ there was what was basically an arthritis and they’d get put in the chiller and they’d get blown out because the gases and the juices in the joints that cause the arthritis would swell up and taint the meat. So they’d just cut it out as quickly as possible. I got taught to take the skeleton out of a sheep, while it was still hanging up, and yeah, it was literally just cut that chunk out, keep the rest, you know. And the practice of putting them down was only in extreme cases where the animal was fully diseased or fully messed up or they’d been crushed or they’d laid down too long and they couldn’t get up and the toxins had actually gone through the meat.
How would you rate the hygiene at the slaughterhouse?
On a scale of one to ten, probably about negative five. In the marshalling yards the animals would be standing almost knee-deep in their own waste. Hay would be thrown out to them when they were disabled or weak and they’d literally be eating out of their own crap. Stomachs would get burst; the idea was there was supposed to be zero tolerance for faeces on the floor, but it would be everywhere.
The holding pens were under cover, but even so it took a long time before they realised that you gotta clean those pens out. They were on crates about this high off the ground, approximately two inches [5cm], so the waste matter would fall through and you could smell the urea, the ammonia from their waste, festering there. We were supposed to clean those out once every two weeks, one pen at a time, but they’d get left. I think about five weeks was the biggest record I seen while I was there, until they actually started filling up through the crate and then you’d have to lift the crates up and shovel it out. And then it would just get dumped around the yard for flies to breed in, which would then go reinfest the sheep that are being held, and, you know, the cycle of disease just kept going and going.
Did you notice any changes in the mentality or behaviour of the workers the longer they worked there?
Yeah, there was a definite change. A lot of people ‘ there was heavy drug use, alcohol use. A lot of that seemed to be compensating because as soon as people knocked off it was a matter of getting blind, forget about what you’ve done for that day, you know. Or you’d get the other side of it where people would snap and just start getting really brutal. It was either denial or the extreme acceptance of ‘well, I’m going to kill kill kill’.
Do you think that doing this job affected workers outside work hours, such as in the way they treated humans or other animals?
Oh, a lot of them had their own pets but they’d go out hunting and they wouldn’t have any consideration. I mean, you’d hit a kangaroo on the side of the road or hit a kangaroo on your way to work and you’d be joking about it. You know, no one would care about the animal you’ve just killed. That realisation even got me one day when I hit a roo, but I did do the right thing and had to take the hatchet out of the back of my car and cut his head off. It was either that or leave the animal there kicking and bleeding.
But a lot of people just, yeah, they treated other animals that weren’t socially accepted pets as fair game, open sport. People used to go out pig hunting because there’s a lot of feral pigs around the area. And they’d let their dog sic onto them for something to do and let the dogs attack and maul them for five minutes before they decided to shoot them. I don’t know if that was a direct consequence of working at the meatworks, but it’s a pretty big coincidence.
You mentioned alcohol and drug use — that was quite widespread, was it?
If it wasn’t for marijuana, amphetamines and alcohol that place couldn’t function.
And so that’s while they’re working as well, not just afterwards to forget about it?
While they were working there were a few people drinking on the job, which I always wondered about, it being a Muslim slaughterhouse. Alcohol should have been banned because it’s against their religion, but a lot of people would be drinking, though not the Muslims themselves. But a lot of the other workers were heavily using amphetamines, smoking dope on their lunch breaks and stuff, and a lot of that was, I’d say, to compensate for what they were doing. That’s the way it felt.
Do you think workers at the slaughterhouse could freely express their concerns without feeling as though their jobs were under threat?
No, you can’t. If you scream too loudly you will get the sack, and that’s a lot of the reason why I left because things I was saying were getting ignored. I knew that if you demanded you’d be out the door and in such a small community there’s not many jobs. That was the reason why I was there to begin with.
The head of the meatworks was an accountant, he was a bean counter. All he worried about was money. Like, he was an accountant as a profession, and that’s all it was to him. It was a numbers game. You know, this many animals versus this much to fix it — are we going to get more animals through if we fix it or do we just put up with it the way it is and ignore everyone’s comments.
The quality control officers were powerless or ignorant or in denial, and the vet — there was the two vets there, who I believe were also supposed to be RSPCA officers — just ignored it, put up with it. That’s the meatworks, everyone just thinks that’s what it’s supposed to be. They don’t know any better, they don’t wanna know any better. And yeah, you can’t, like I say, make any demands, otherwise you’ll be out the door.
How did you feel while you were working and did your work affect you outside working hours?
My drinking and marijuana use steadily increased. I did become a lot more withdrawn and antisocial. I found I could only hang out with other meatworkers, because [we were] in the same mental state, I suppose, same social scene. Also, in a country town there’s not too many outlets for sociability. But the meatworkers were treated with a kind of respect and fear because everyone knew that they were crazy. [Laughs.] You know, they had their own corner in the pub, and yeah, you were treated a little differently because of it and you treated others a little differently because of it.
Do you think that the violence inflicted on animals in the slaughterhouse spilled over to violence among workers during work or outside work?
I seen many arguments on the slaughter floor where people would throw their knives on the ground and go out the back and punch on, over voicing concerns about safety or he’s not doing his job and why should I have to cover him. Yes, there was a great deal of violence, as well as a lot of dangerous practical jokes and things like that. Yeah, and if you couldn’t take it, if you couldn’t hack it — you’re a girl, you’re a wuss, you know, you were treated like shit. You weren’t one of the boys, basically.
Are there any memories of the slaughterhouse that have particularly stuck with you?
The scream of the goats. It would sound like a child being tortured. And they would scream a lot of times when you didn’t electro-stun them properly — they’d scream and they’d jump and they’d bark. They’d bash their heads on the side of the race and open up wounds. And seeing other people, as I say, take crowbars and chains to animals. It’s going to stick with me for the rest of my life. But particularly the screams of the animals — it sounds too human.
You know they know it’s not right and you know within yourself it’s not right. But in pursuit of the almighty dollar many people will do many things.
For more information on slaughterhouse work, I recommend:
‘The Psychological Damage of Slaughterhouse Work’ in PTSD Journal (short article based on academic research).
‘Meatworkers, especially women, prone to violence: study’ by Danielle Bowling (short article based on academic research).
‘Caught in the Gears: The Dangers of Slaughterhouse Work’ by Faunalytics (summary of a study by Human Rights Watch).
‘Slaughterhouse Workers’ by Food Empowerment Project (shortish overview of research on the topic).
‘Slaughterhouses and Increased Crime Rates’ by Amy J. Fitzgerald, Linda Kalof, Thomas Dietz (academic journal article).
‘Slaughterhouse: The Shocking Story of Greed, Neglect, and Inhumane Treatment Inside the U.S. Meat Industry’ by Gail A. Eisnitz (book).