Working in an abattoir: Two takes on the subject
Stéphane Geffroy, A l’abattoir, Éditions du Seuil, coll. Raconter la vie, 2016, 96 p.
Geoffrey Le Guilcher, Steak Machine, Éditions Goutte d’Or, 2017, 200 p.
How can anyone work in an abattoir?
Over the last few months, in a context in which the association L214 has denounced the conditions in which animals are slaughtered, abattoirs have been the focus of unexpected editorial attention1. Videos filmed by the association have received much coverage in the broadcast media and the press, leading to the establishment of a parliamentary commission of inquiry led by the deputy Olivier Falorni (the work of the commission is described in a special report on the National Assembly website). A bill on “respect for animals in abattoirs” was discussed and voted on at the National Assembly in January.
Among the books on this subject that have been published recently, two describe the working conditions in cattle abattoir in Brittany.
A l’abattoir by Stéphane Geffroy is a book by a worker who describes his career at the Liffré abattoir in Ile-et-Vilaine and the professional, trade union and civic path that he has carved out for himself over more than 25 years. The publication of his story feeds into demands for better recognition of the work, know-how and commitment of all those who, like him, work in slaughterhouses.
Steak Machine, by Geoffroy Le Guilcher, tells the tale of a journalist who temps for five weeks in a slaughterhouse that he dubs Mercury2. He wants to learn “whether these meat factories have spawned monstrous humans”. The text combines his account of life as a young employee discovering work on the assembly line with analyses gleaned from reports or interviews with researchers. He also reports many discussions with his colleagues on the assembly line and sketches portraits of the employees.
The two books are extremely vivid and can be read quickly and easily. They tell of very similar working conditions and describe situations that will not astonish those who have already entered an abattoir. However, reading them one after the other, it becomes apparent that there isn’t much overlap in their portraits of the workers.
Let’s begin with what they have in common…
Both books attribute great importance to the description of different positions on the assembly line and to the pace of the work, which sets the tempo for all those working in the abattoir. They write of the noise, the humidity, the mechanical failures and the bad postures, despite the raised platforms and specially designed posts. In both Liffré and Mercury, each employee has 1 minute or 1 minute 15 seconds to accomplish his repetitive task, learned through painful experience, which allows him to “keep up with the line”. Both books describe the pressure exerted on each worker on the line, who is required above all “to keep to time”. “The worst thing you can do is fail to keep up the pace”, Geffroy points out.
Both books also relate the brutality of the social interactions in the abattoir. As the pages progress, the “bosses” appear, always moving, always in a hurry, shouting at the workers and not seeming to know any means other than insults to make themselves understood. They are at the heart of stories that tell of flagrant injustices and repeated humiliations. Here, a boss questions whether malfunctioning equipment could have injured a worker and caused an accident; there, another spoils his underlings’ lives by refusing their requests for days off and making no effort to accommodate the dates of their holidays. Faced with such behaviour, the employees seem powerless, especially as all of them, including the two authors, hope for recognition of their work – recognition that never comes.
The last point the two books have in common is their emphasis on how physically hard the work is. At Mercury, Le Guilcher suffers from sore muscles, joints and fingers and back pain, as well as a host of injuries to his feet and hands due to the damp working conditions. He also reports the workers’ discussions about RSI (Repetitive Strain Injury) in their wrists or shoulders and requests for recognition of work-related illness, requests that in some cases have already been formally made. He notes that in the abattoir “even health problems had numbers. The workers knew the figures corresponding to their discs, to their lumbar regions, bones, tendons and cartilages, all the parts of their damaged bodies” (Chap. 8). In a chapter entitled “Growing old at 50”, Geffroy writes how at the age of 45 he had already had “two inguinal hernia, one on each side of the groin, which had been operated on”. The “carpal tunnel of [his] left hand” had also been operated on, as had his shoulder. Not to mention “lumbago, varicose veins and arthritis in [his] hands”. Above all, he notes that “in the 25 years that I have been working, I have never seen anyone from the abattoir leave his job at the normal retirement age” (Chap. 7). He points to a general “descent into incapacity when people hit 50”, a subject on which the union and management are in discussion but to which they have been unable to find any satisfactory solutions. A pamphlet entitled “Warming-up when you get to work” was circulated, but this seemed derisory given the extent of the health issues in a workplace in which all the employees suffer from work-related pathologies well before the age of retirement. On this point, the two books are in agreement, showing the extent to which these questions are taboo and rarely brought up publicly, even though the eventual solutions extend well beyond the confines of each individual abattoir.
Despite what they have in common, one can’t help noticing the striking differences between the two books, particularly their portrayal of the staff employed in the abattoirs.
Geffroy describes how he started working at the slaughterhouse 26 years ago somewhat arbitrarily, as a summer job. His studies to be a joiner were at a standstill, so he began working there and found that the pay wasn’t bad: he was soon earning the equivalent of what his father earned in a small carpentry workshop. Working in this abattoir through thick and thin, he earned his living, joined the trade union, became the staff representative and was able to carve out a place and a sense of dignity for himself and his co-workers on the assembly line. He describes his pals at the abattoir, their nicknames (he himself was known as “Cactus” because of his “prickly character”), and the atmosphere of solidarity that kept them going in this extremely difficult working environment. With parents who had either been farmers or simply lived next to farms, the workers in his group often had ties to the countryside, where they had come into contact with the slaughter of animals. Equally, Geffroy shows the workers’ sense of attachment to their own (personal) knives, which are an extension of their hand and thus of their self. They kept these for a long time, looking after them, sharpening them, etc., since a good knife does a good part of the work. As his career advanced, his different commitments at the CFDT Union or the works council were also stages in his personal development. By learning more about employment law from the perspective of an activist, he opened up to others and developed a sense of pride.
Le Guilcher’s account offers a completely different portrait of abattoir workers. Admittedly, he does work on the assembly line alongside a trade union man, but their interactions remain limited. On the other hand, he talks a lot to other contract workers like himself, even spending part of his weekends with them. They are all young, or indeed very young, have often trained in areas that have nothing to do with the agri-food industry, and see their work at the abattoir as a temporary thing, a stage in a career path that will lead them to other trades. The flipside of working on the assembly line seems to be going without sleep, blotting things out and dealing in dope and acid. What’s more, the working conditions in the factory seem quite different. There is no mention of earplugs or personal knives, and little sign of the solidarity with Le Guilcher the contract worker that Geffroy might describe. Only after several days, for example, do some of the staff share their tips on how to prevent their shoes and gloves getting damp.
This discrepancy, this truly striking difference between the two descriptions, gives pause for thought. Why might these accounts of work on the assembly line in industrial cattle abattoirs produce such contrasting portraits? One initial hypothesis might be that the texts do not share the same perspective. On the one hand, we have the account of a worker who wants to show the social utility and the dignity of his profession, while on the other we have the testimony of a journalist looking into the monstrosity of people who slaughter animals. Nevertheless, this explanation seems somewhat hasty and caricatured. Le Guilcher describes his fondness for the people he works alongside, albeit only temporarily. Another more promising hypothesis is suggested in Geffroy’s book, in the chapter on health in the workplace (Chap. 7): “The management now seems to have a new strategy for dealing with employees getting worn out at an early age: higher turnover. It plays on the turnover of the youngsters, who only stay in the firm for one or two years. It is more difficult for the management in terms of organization, since there must be permanent recruitment if fewer staff stay on in the longer term. However, in a period of high unemployment, it is feasible even if the departure rate is high in the first days or months after recruitment. All the same, this has many advantages for the boss. Instead of protesting, the employees leave. They cost less, because there is little or no increase in wages to reflect experience, even though the cost of their training has to be taken into account.” This points to a much more satisfactory explanation: if the descriptions in the two books diverge, that is probably because the authors are not describing the same thing … One focuses on staff on permanent contracts (CDIs) who intend to pursue their careers in a particularly exhausting line of work where what matters is keeping going. The other tells of the experience of young temps or workers on fixed-term contracts who have no intention of staying, and whose very presence makes the former group’s battles more difficult. Finally, each author has a different position in the slaughterhouse hierarchy (one is a trade unionist and staff representative on a permanent contract, a man with 25 years of experience, the other is a temporary worker on a five-week contract). This prevents each author from being able to accurately describe the members of the other group.
In the end, it is by reading these two very contrasting books as a pair that we gain a coherent vision of the work of employees at the abattoir. However, there is still one small enigma: although these books were written and published in a context in which the conditions in which animals are slaughtered have been repeatedly called into question, this topic is very much of secondary concern in both. In Geffroy’s book, several of the comments made suggest that the author, like many of the workers described, had already seen or indeed participated in the slaughter of animals on nearby farms, even before coming to work at the abattoir. The slaughterhouse is thus seen as the endpoint of the livestock-rearing chain, and it is part of the natural order of things that animals raised for their meat should be slaughtered. Le Guilcher’s book is more interesting from this point of view, given the author’s route into the subject matter. Having found work at the abattoir in order to bear witness to the conditions in which animals are slaughtered, he gets caught up in the vast machinery of the assembly line, in its infernal pace and its effects on the employees’ own bodies. He very quickly concludes that a link exists between the way the animals and the humans are treated. Describing this pace, he writes: “This absurd pace leads, among other joys, to the mistreatment of animals. And humans. The two are indissociable.” Preoccupied by keeping up the pace and reporting on what is going on, for many chapters (and indeed weeks) he loses sight of the carcasses he is working on, all the more so as a physical wall separates the slaughterhouse from the rest of the abattoir and hides it from view. Conscious of this omission, he tries to approach the abattoir, first by chatting to staff who work there during their breaks and then by managing to get himself assigned to a post nearer to them during his last week. However, here again the description of the work carries him away, with the author arguing that there cannot be any “clean meat” while the pace of the work remains so absurdly fast and animals are killed in industrial quantities. He concludes that the mass consumption of meat depends on turning a blind eye to two things: the fate of the animals and health of the workers.
Thus, above and beyond their differences, the two books overlap in their desire to do justice to those who work in these places that no one wants to see.
Publisher webpage on the book A l’abattoir:
The site also includes press articles published when the book was released as well as comments from readers, several of whom work in abattoirs.
Publisher webpage on the book Steak Machine:
The book release can be followed on the publisher’s Facebook page:
This is a translation from French by Katherine Kean, INIST-CNRS translator, revised by Helen Tomlinson.
- In social science literature, and more particularly after the mad cow disease crisis, abattoirs have been the subject of many publications. The bibliography of the PAN project gives an overview of these: https://www.zotero.org/groups/pan/items/. These can be filtered using the keywords on the left of the screen, such as “abattoir” or “slaughterhouse”.
- When the book was published, various press articles revealed that it was in fact the Kermené abattoir in Collinée in the Côtes-d’Armor region of France.