Watching the Chickens Pass By
The Grueling Monotony of the Disassembly Line
by Steve Striffler
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Work on the poultry disassembly lines, where birds are processed every few seconds, is a demanding and dangerous occupation. In a single shift a worker can make thousands of repetitive cuts or movements. But although much has been written about the physical pain of slaughterhouse work, the mental anguish of making it through a single shift can be equally harrowing.
There is no shortage of eye-catching and often horrific stories when it comes to the meat industries. The deaths of some two dozen workers in a 1991 fire at an Imperial Foods chicken processing plant is perhaps the most tragic case, but it is by no means isolated. However, in my two summers working on the production line at Tyson while conducting research for a book, there were no horror stories of the type that make the evening news. To be sure, safety regulations and standards designed to protect both workers and consumers were routinely broken or ignored in the poultry plants where I worked. But what impressed me most about the strange world of poultry processing was the unbearable weight of routine. The oppressiveness of routine work is very difficult to convey. Yet it defines factory life and is perhaps the most devastating part of work in the poultry industry. Minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day, month by month, year by year, one of the most basic features of life — work — becomes an unbearable and unwinnable struggle against the clock. In fact, the more one struggles, the worse it is. The first complaint that virtually all workers point to — before wages, working conditions, and supervisors – is the intolerable monotony. As one worker explained:
It’s something that is impossible to describe. You worked here, so you understand. It’s weird, but for three or four days a week, at some point during the day, I honestly feel like I will not make it through the day . . . that I will not possibly make it to break. Most of the time I think about something else, or play a game with myself. I try to make the best cuts, or see how fast I can work, or see how little I can do and still get the job done, or see if I can do it with one hand, something, anything. But at some point during the day these little tricks don’t work and I feel like I am going to have a panic attack. I look at the clock. Then I start to think about every movement I make. Once you start to think you are finished. It’s like if you think about breathing, you can’t breathe. I feel like I am going to scream. The clock does not move. I swear it goes backward! You know what I am saying. I even tell God that if he lets me make it to break I will never come back. I promise myself I will quit. And I am totally serious.
I have been playing this game for ten years! I come back every day. For ten years I have been torturing myself, spending the best years of my life in this ugly building, without windows, watching the chickens pass by, doing the same exact thing. I honestly don’t know why I do it. The money of course. And once I leave the plant I somehow forget how awful it was and here I am the next day. I can’t explain it. I suppose I am so relieved when I leave the plant that I forget how bad it was.
An estimated 45 billion chickens are slaughtered in the world each year, a quantity unsurpassed by any other livestock category. In modern poultry slaughterhouses, new birds are added to the disassembly line literally every few seconds.
Routine does not simply mess with your mind; it destroys your body. Not all workers are affected in the same way or to the same extent, but if you spend more than a year on the line — doing the exact same series of motions over and over again — it is certain that your fingers, wrists, hands, arms, shoulders, or back will feel the effects. A few more years and the damage may be irreparable. Almost all of the line workers I met had serious wrist problems. Many had undergone surgery and more than a few were permanently debilitated.2 A 2005 report on the meat and poultry industries from Human Rights Watch put it this way:
Nearly every worker interviewed for this report bore physical signs of a serious injury suffered from working in a meat or poultry plant. Automated lines carrying dead animals and their parts for disassembly move too fast for worker safety. Repeating thousands of cutting motions during each work shift puts enormous traumatic stress on workers’ hands, wrists, arms, shoulders, and backs. They often work in close quarters, creating additional dangers for themselves and coworkers. They often receive little training and are not always given the safety equipment they need. They are often forced to work long overtime hours under pain of dismissal if they refuse. Meat and poultry industry employers set up the workplaces and practices that create these dangers, but they treat the resulting mayhem as a normal, natural part of the production process, not as what it is — repeated violations of international human rights standards.
As one worker I worked with points out, the pain can cause even more anguish because “as soon as I start hanging chickens I feel fine. It’s like that is all my muscles know how to do. I am in constant pain when I am not at work. My hands hurt so bad sometimes that I cannot make dinner or hold my child. When I wake up in the morning it takes my hands and arms thirty minutes to wake up.” In other cases, the work provides no relief: “This is the fifth or sixth job [in the plant] I have had. After a year in one job I can’t do it anymore. Something starts to hurt so bad that I can’t do the job. If I complain enough, they usually switch me, but not always to something better.”
The industry’s response is that workers develop repetitive motion disorders and other injuries when they fail to follow proper procedures. If workers would just use tools properly, maintain good posture, and do their exercises, they would experience no pain or injuries. Such statements would be comical if the consequences were not so tragic. Further, the company’s stance can be perverse. On one memorable occasion, Michael, our supervisor, conducted a routine “training session” on ergonomics. Because the supervisors could not afford to stop the line, Michael was to read “the lesson” while the workers continued to work and the machines drowned out his voice. Each worker was to
then sign a sheet of paper confirming that he or she had received the lesson. “I sign,” one worker quipped, “because I do receive a lesson. I learn how little Tyson cares about us.”
On this particular occasion, Arturo challenged Michael in full view of the other workers, suggesting that if the instruction was to have any meaning, he had to stop the line and gather the workers in a quiet place for the lesson. Michael, embarrassed, reluctantly stopped the line, moved the workers into the hallway, and read a single sheet of paper with about ten points. Arturo insisted that I translate, since, as he pointed out, there was little point in conducting a lesson in a language that the majority of workers could not understand. (Even with the translation, four of the workers from Southeast Asia were left completely out of the loop.) The ten points were all straightforward
enough. Workers should use their legs, not backs, to lift heavy objects; they should stand close enough, and at the right height, when sorting chicken on the conveyor belt; and so on.
Hoping to avoid discussion, Michael ignored the last line of the lesson, “Ask the workers if they have any questions,” which I blurted out in Spanish before he could send us back to work. The women line workers responded by approaching Michael with a ferociousness that caught everyone off guard. The scene must have looked a bit odd from a distance. Eight or nine Mexican and Salvadoran women, all over forty-five and standing about five feet tall, were berating their bewildered six-foot-three, twenty-two-year-old supervisor. Looking at Michael with serious determination, Maria began, “Tell him we know how to do our jobs. But we are too short and need stools so we can be at the correct height.” Ana chimed in: “Tell him I agree with the lesson. We shouldn’t reach as far as we do. It hurts our backs. But if you are by yourself, you have to reach [all the way across the conveyor belt]. The problem is we don’t have enough workers at each station.” Feeling momentarily empowered, Blanca quickly added: “I can barely move my wrists when I get home because I am doing the job of two people. We don’t need a lesson, we need more workers. Tell him to come work and see what it is like.”
I translated as quickly as possible. The women were serious, but they were also enjoying the moment. Things were how they should be. Michael was a kid receiving a tongue-lashing from women who were old enough to be his mother. Winking at me, Isabel said, “Tell the boy we know how to do our jobs and that he needs to start doing his.” As we well knew, Michael was doing his job. That was the problem. Looking for an exit, Michael panicked and dug himself in even deeper: “Tell them if they hurt, they should go to the nurse.” There was hardly a sorer subject than the ineffective company nurse. All workers in the group started to laugh dismissively. To make sure he got the message, Maria scoffed, “When we go to the nurse, she just gives us Advil and tells us to go back to work.” She lifts her arms. “Look at my wrists. Do you think Advil is the answer?” And with that, the workers decided that the discussion was over and returned to work.
The production line and factory rhythm give work an unbearable routine that places mental and physical strain on workers of all ages, genders, and nationalities. There is no escaping it. Unfortunately, the weight of routine does not end at work. When I first began at Tyson, I had this naive idea that the one virtue of working in a factory was that once I left work I would be free. Little did I know.
I worked the second shift, arriving around 2:30 p.m. to set up the production lines. I would then lift bags of flour for the next eight hours, enjoy two half-hour breaks, prepare the lines for the cleaning crew, and finally get out of the plant sometime after 12:30 a.m. (often after 1:00 a.m.). Exhausted, I would first shower and then wind down by having a beer and watching some late-night TV before hitting the sack. Rarely did I get to bed before 2:30, and I often fell asleep in front of the TV. I slept well but frequently woke up in the middle of the night with the sensation that my hands were so bloated they were going to explode. This is what you get when you clench bags of flour all day long. Around 9:00 or 10:00 a.m. I would wake up in time to do it all over again. Free time? I had trouble finding the time, let alone energy, to shop, exercise, or even do something as simple as get a haircut.
Poultry workers on modern disassembly lines make as many as 20,000 repetitive movements in a single single shift. Studies have shown that more than 40 percent of female poultry slaughterhouse workers suffer from musculoskeletal disorder (MSD).
Yet my situation was much easier than that of the other workers. My stint in the factory was temporary, a fact that was not only comforting but also allowed me to postpone or ignore “life” in ways that most workers could not. I had no family, few commitments, and no financial problems. I came home to a quiet apartment and had the luxury of vegging out. No other worker could do that. Most had families, and many worked another job. Some even additionally worked the night shift in our plant. As one worker recounted:
I am always tired. The worst part is that since I work the second shift I am rarely around my children or wife. When I am home I am usually asleep. I get home at one in the morning. My wife works the first shift so when I return she is asleep. We cannot both work the same shift because someone has to be with the kids. When I wake up in the morning she is already at work and I have to get the kids ready for school. Something always goes wrong. One can’t find his shoe. Another lost this or that. It’s a circus. I get them to school, come home, sleep a little bit more before I get ready for work. I go to work and my wife is leaving. She gets home in time to be with the kids in the afternoon. Sometimes there is a little time when the kids are alone. We don’t like that because something could happen, but it is no more than an hour and the oldest is now thirteen. I see my wife on Sunday. We joke that it is a good thing we don’t want more kids because we don’t see each other enough to make them!
The sad irony is that although working in a factory imposes a routine on daily life, it is not one that makes it possible to have a “normal” life. Even the mundane tasks of daily living — shopping for groceries, putting children to bed, intimate moments with a spouse — become difficult to accomplish. It is hard to tell which is more overwhelming: the oppressive routine at work or the inability to establish a viable routine beyond the factory gate.
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