The Human Cost Of Animal Exploitation: A Foundation For Coalition-Building
All humans are disadvantaged by animal exploitation in key ways—meat and dairy consumption compromises our health, animal agriculture is the most deleterious industry to our environment, the violence implicit in animal exploitation perpetuates and reinforces a broader culture of violence, and the list goes on. There are also ways in which disadvantaged people are specifically exploited by industries that also promote animal abuse. It is the least advantaged humans who are operating and working in the industries that cause harm to some of the greatest numbers of animals. This needs to be attended to in order to fully address issues of animal exploitation.
There are a number of important connections that are often masked by rhetoric both within and outside of the animal protection movement. First is that humans are, in fact, animals. Biologically speaking, we have very little DNA differentiation from most other animals. In fact, there is likely as much genetic variation between any two fruit flies than between a human and a chimpanzee.  However, the human-animal binary is discussed as if we are different in some extreme and important way. This is often referred to as human exceptionalism and it is the foundation of animal exploitation.
Second, the abuse of nonhuman animals is closely tied to the exploitation of human animals. Within the animal protection movement, we are often so busy trying to prove to the masses that animal protection issues are important that we sometimes make claims about the importance of nonhuman animals by propping their plight up above others. For example, some might say that nonhuman animals are the most exploited. I agree with this statement, and you may too, but we must be careful that this thinking doesn’t allow for the many inequalities faced by other groups to be forgotten or ignored within our work. Further, we must remember that inequalities are often tied together.
Examples of the connections between human and animal exploitation are starkly exhibited in meat packing plants and leather tanneries. The mass production and systematic killing of animals for food is where we see the greatest amount of suffering for animals, and notably this includes human animals as well. More animals die in the U.S. in animal agriculture than in any other industry. In 2005, Human Rights Watch identified meat-packing plants as being the most dangerous factory job in the U.S. In his book, Fast Food Nation (remade into a movie of the same name in 2006), Eric Schlosser describes this problem:
“In 1999, more than one-quarter of America’s nearly 150,000 meatpacking workers suffered a job-related injury or illness…more than five times the national average…The actual number is most likely higher [because]…the meatpacking industry has a well-documented history of discouraging injury reports, falsifying injury data, and putting injured workers back on the job quickly to minimize the reporting of lost workdays.”
Tannery workers also face job risks that increase their mortality. Leather, which often comes cheaply because animals are treated poorly before death and human workers are underpaid, is made from the chemically treated skins of various animals, most often cows. What is often neglected in conversations about the morality of leather is that human animals are doing the tanning, exposing themselves to various noxious chemicals. Multiple studies have found deleterious health effects and increased mortality among tannery workers, including increased risk of bladder cancer and testicular cancer. Discussions about tannery workers may be neglected in part because much of this work is happening overseas, often in India, making it easier to ignore. Importantly, there are fewer protections for workers in some countries where leather is mass-produced, confounding these health problems.
The two former examples highlight that these industries are not just in the business of animal exploitation. They exploit along lines of race, nationhood, citizenship status, and economic status, as well as species.
These connections are not meant to absolve anyone working in animal exploitation industries from culpability. However, it must be acknowledged that given another choice most people would not take these jobs. People with resources do not become slaughterhouse workers. It may even be extreme desperation that lands people in these jobs. Schlosser’s research highlights one egregious example of such desperation when he describes how many people are lured into the slaughterhouse work from Mexico with promises of different types of work and work visas, only to find they have been lied to, have been brought into the country illegally, and the slaughterhouse is their only option.
The plight of nonhuman animals is often closely tied to the exploitation of humans. We should be careful not to fall into the trap of human exceptionalism. At the same time, we need to avoid placing the exploitation of nonhuman animals in a discrete category of its own. This is a difficult balance, but it is important to understand the vast web of inequalities that are closely connected and which operate simultaneously. This perspective can allow us to avoid overlooking issues that need to be dealt with to truly dismantle the oppression of nonhuman animals by allowing us to form alliances with other social justice causes and recognize new ways to work against animal exploitation.
In attempts to create cultural shifts in the consumptive patterns of the privileged, we often forget to work for and with the human victims of these industries. If we shifted at least a cultural focus toward providing other options for the slaughterhouse workers, tannery workers, fast food workers, and fast food consumers who are trapped in food deserts, then the picture might begin to shift. Perhaps it is true—if slaughterhouses had glass walls we would all be vegetarians. Not as prescient, but certainly just as true and just as difficult to achieve, is that if slaughterhouses had no workers we’d all be vegetarian.
It is a lofty goal to think that we can change the workings of capitalism and shift the face of inequality. I am making these critiques without a clear idea of what must happen to move forward. But I still bring up these points because we need to think about them and talk about them. We need to remember that it takes a certain amount of desperation to work in a slaughterhouse or a tannery. We need to remember that the plight of all disadvantaged groups are closely bound, making inter-movement coalitions a key component of future success.
——— Race” The power of an Illusion, Episode 1. (2003) California Newsreel. 56 min. Transcript available at: http://newsreel.org/transcripts/race1.htm