World's Best Practice - Live Export | Australian Slaughter
An ALV investigator went undercover at a Victorian chicken slaughterhouse for several days, and documented horrific and routine cruelty to animals.
It is over twelve months since this investigation took place (due to other work the investigator was involved in we have not been able to make this information public until now), but the terrible animal abuse detailed below continues unabated.
It began with a suggestion that "someone should do this" after seeing an ad in the paper stating "Chicken hangers wanted, no experience required". With one phone call I was informed of where and when and who to ask for. I had the job.
Monday morning 5.30 start. I still remember sitting in the car park wondering what the hell I was in for. The first thing that hit me was the smell. It filled my nose and would not leave till days later. Then through a mist of water I saw the towers – towers of yellow plastic crates up to 20 feet high, filled with live birds. As I walked past I could see their eyes staring out.
I asked for the manager and was shown up to a room where the other new starters for that week were waiting. The manager looked us up and down then walked us to the change room where we were given navy blue overalls, a hairnet, and a mask. Whilst the others were still getting changed the manager approached me and asked whether I knew what I was in for. "It is hangin’ chickens," he said.
Once all dressed in our new uniforms we were back out to a high roofed area where all the crates were stacked. This time work had started. On the way through to this area I could see all the workers in white overalls handling dead, featherless, headless chickens in the "clean" processing room. In the loading area loud grinding mechanical noise could be heard. The forklift was shifting the yellow crates full of frightened birds.
We stopped beside what looked like a steel cubby house, metal stairs up to a steel flooring with a tarpaulin roof and sides. This was the "hanging room". We were lead up the steps and as I entered it took several seconds for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. Five men were standing either side of a conveyor belt where the yellow crates, filled with live birds, were mechanically moved along. When another tray came into reach the men were grabbing the chickens by one leg, flipping them upside down and snapping their legs into metal stirrups that were on another conveyor at about head height.
Then came our introduction from the manager, and I quote, "There's not much to it: pick up the chicken (doing so as explaining), turn it upside down and press its legs into the stirrups. Back faces out, belly faces in. Have a go! Watch out ‘cos they'll shit all over you when you grab ‘em. You'll get faster as the day goes on. Go to breaks with the others, on the whistle." And that was that. No detail on how to handle the birds to minimize injury and stress. No information on what to do if any birds are dead or dying. No information on workplace safety, how not to get your hands/fingers caught between the crates, how not to get your clothes caught on the nonstop stirrup conveyor. No mention of how you go about stopping the line if someone was injured. No ear protection from the noise, no eye protection from the dust and faeces.
That was it, flat out with the other workers. In my opinion, every bird killed in that place died in pain. The first thing I noticed when I picked up my first bird was her body warmth and her fear. I imagined the pain in my own legs as I pushed her legs between the metal bars of the stirrups. The pace was frantic. 50,000 birds killed each day. With 10 workers that was 5000 birds to be handled by each worker. The permanent workers were telling us how we were lucky to have 10 "hangers" and often they only had 6.
The time before the first break was a blur. I could not believe what I was doing to these beautiful creatures. First break, we all walked back into the main building and into the staff room. I and the other new workers (who hadn't earned the right to wear goggles and aprons) where covered in shit from those poor suffering birds. There I was brushing past, standing aside and talking to the "clean" workers who were still dressed in their white uniforms. I could not bring myself to eat. When the break was over, I watched the "clean" workers still in their white coats and hats shuffle from the filthy tea room, past the shit covered workers, give their hands a token wash, adjust their hair net and go off to their stations. Some had the task of disembowelling the birds, some to pack the "clean" birds into boxes. From that room the boxes of birds were then packed into refrigeration.
Back to work and the pace was just as fast. When some of the birds are lifted out of the crates they cry, some flap their wings frantically in an attempt to get away. I quickly developed a technique that I hoped caused less pain to the birds. I would hold both legs of the chicken and under their belly to support their legs when I turned them over and gently as possible squeeze their legs into the stirrups. I lost my grip on the leg of one bird and this was the first time I felt the their bones break. These genetically interfered creatures were too heavy to be held by one of their 6 to 8 week old legs. This almost made me sick as it then hit home that every other worker was picking up every bird, spinning them around and upside down by one leg.
Every other worker in the hanging room, including the other first day starters, from my observation, showed little or no regard for the pain and suffering of the birds. The first day finished after eight hours. The pace was so fast that feeling the warmth and fear in every bird, the whole day, is now and was then a blur.
During that first day I had many encounters with individual birds that still haunt me. Some of the birds flap so hard they lift their heads up so they are looking at you from between their legs, and they stare straight into your eyes. A lot of the birds appear groggy when the crate first appears from under the chute on the conveyor belt. I put this down to poor light, poor health, and some of the birds being close to suffocation after being stuffed so tightly into the crates.
Occasionally birds would try to escape as they entered the hanging room, running and flapping, often landing on the metal hanging room floor, only to be left there by some of the hangers to be trodden on as they huddle in fear in a corner. Some chickens would attempt to hobble along the floor, only to fall directly off or fall down the steps to the concrete floor 2 metres below. If any chickens fell to the factory floor, or fell between the plastic crates to the floor below, they were assaulted by a man with a long metal rod with a hook at the end. He would hook the chicken around the neck and drag the bird through the water and faeces until he could reach her with his hands, then he would literally throw the bird back onto the hanging room floor. I found myself being the only one concerned to pick up the birds off the hanging room floor before further pain was inflicted on them prior to their inevitable death.
One chicken that fell near me began huddling between my feet and snuggling into my legs like a chick to its mother, trying to be rescued from the nightmare going on all around. As I lifted her off my feet and placed her legs into the stirrups I could feel the tears streaming down my face.
I timed myself that day. 50 birds killed every 4 minutes. The line only stopped on a couple of occasions. Each time it was because of a mechanical problem with the crate conveyor. It seemed like nothing else would stop the line. Not chickens with their heads caught in the leg stirrups or workers clothes caught in the stirrups. You just had to get yourself unhooked fast.
At 1 pm on that first day we were supposed to be finished and we weren't so we had to keep working until the last crate was empty. At this point the manager increased the speed of the conveyors. This is when this place, if possible, got even worse. As if the workers had shares in the company, as the line speed increased so did the pace of the workers. For a whole fourteen dollars each for that final hour the hangers worked frantically, leaving almost every bird hanging by only one leg. When finished I was absolutely exhausted. I had shit in my hair, mouth, eyes and all over my uniform. As I went to get changed the manager came up and asked how I went and more importantly whether or not I would return. He was more than pleased to hear that I would be returning.
I couldn't go straight home that afternoon. I couldn't see my family. I had to write down what I had seen, smelled, heard and done. I sat in a pub numb to the world and scrawled down what I could bare to remember. I couldn't face the chickens in our backyard for days. I found myself bursting into tears just out of the blue. From the first night I had trouble sleeping and would find myself picturing the abuse in my mind over and over. I think I was actually in shock. That night I noticed bruising and swelling on my wrists and I realized that it was from the chickens’ wings flapping against me as they were being hung.
The second morning was a 4.45am start and just prior to starting the boss handed me an apron and goggles to protect me from the shit. Obviously I was not deserving of these on the first day and when I returned I was given these privileges. I worked for 2 more days in that place. The third day I attempted to obtain footage from inside the hanging room but it was far too dark for the equipment. The sound came through loud and clear: a constant mechanical grinding noise and the fearful cries of thousands of birds. The days were all very similar. The breaks the same, the workers jokes the same and the constant cruelty never halted. The cruelty was not in spicks and specks, not little one off instances, it was constant.
On one day I was positioned near the opening in the wall were the chicken stirrup conveyor returned from the killing room. Looking through, all I could see was stainless steel machinery covered in blood splatter and a couple of men walking around. Often the conveyor would return the dismembered legs of the chickens still hanging in the stirrups. The first time I saw them return it took a few seconds to realize what had happened. It was like a scene from a horror movie. My job, being closest to where the stirrups returned, was to remove the legs as fast as possible so the next person could hang a chicken in that stirrup. One of the cheap forms of entertainment for the hangers was to throw the dismembered legs at each other.
The size of the birds ranged drastically, from 3-4kg birds to some weighing less than a kilogram and still showing yellow baby feathers. In every second or third crate there would be at least one dead bird. Whether they died from shock, suffocation or disease I could not tell. Some dead birds were left in the crates by the workers to end up who knows where, but many were hung up by myself and the other workers to be processed for consumption. Every dead bird I found, I hung like all the live birds. Nowhere along the line did I see anyone checking the birds before slaughter and processing.
Many of the birds were crippled and many had their legs seized in a squatting position from being unable to stand under their enormous bulk at such a young age. These birds had to have their legs straightened to be hung up. I tried to imagine the pain of not straightening my legs for weeks and then to have them straightened in a second. You could feel the contractures as you straightened the legs. Some of the chickens would hold onto your sleeve with their beaks, some of them would try to bury their head under your arm. All of them suffered before their slaughter.
It is over 12 months since I did this work and it was 2 weeks after finishing that I was able to sleep without nightmares. I will never forget what I saw and what I did there. I will do it again one day, only next time to gain visual evidence of what the people of Australia condone when they sit for their chicken dinner.
To learn more about the lives of misery endured by chickens raised for meat, see ALV's 14 month chicken industry investigation.
World's Best Practice - Live Export | Australian Slaughter