Forced Labor on the Factory Farm

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, November 2005:

Forced Labor on the Factory Farm
by Karen Davis, PhD, founder & president, United Poultry Concerns

“Unless they were productive, their lives were worthless to their masters.”
–Anne Applebaum, Gulag, A History

A primary difference between a factory
farm and a concentration camp would appear to be
the role of forced labor.
“Work was the central function of most
Soviet camps,” according to Anne Applebaum in
Gulag: A History. In Nazi Germany, Hitler built
camps to terrorize the population into
compliance, and, after war broke out, to
provide German industry with cheap, expendable
labor. “The entire existence of Nazi
concentration camps was marked by a constant
tension between work and extermination,” says
Enzo Traverso in The Origins of Nazi Violence.
Compared to our usual concept of “work”
as “physical and/or mental effort exerted to do
or make something,” the notion that chickens on
a factory farm “work” may seem strange. Granted,
egg-laying hens are caged in horrible conditions,
but while they are there, are they not just
laying eggs the way apples fall from a tree?

In fact, the formation and laying of an
egg is an extremely demanding biological activity
for a hen, under any conditions. And while
chickens raised for meat have been forced to
become, in Michael Watts’ words, wretched
“sites of accumulation,” how does becoming
buried in one’s own flesh constitute work, or
anything that could reasonably be regarded as
forced labor?
If this seems a stretch, consider
Watts’s imagery in his essay The Age of the
Chicken, where he writes that “the designer
chicken establishes the extent to which
nutritional and genetic sciences have produced a
man-made broiler, a cyborg, to fit the needs of
industry.” There is “something grotesque,” Watts
argues, “about the creation of a creature which
is a sort of steroidally enhanced growth machine,
producing in unprecedentedly short periods of
time enormous quantities of flesh around a
distorted skeleton. . . . What is striking about
the chicken is the extent to which the biological
body has been actually constructed physically to
meet the needs of the industrial labor process.”
Striking it is. In the 20th century the
domesticated chicken was divided through genetic
research into two separate utility strains, two
separate “divisions of labor,” one designed for
egg production, the other for meat production.
The model of the chicken, in both cases, is
based on machine metaphors derived from
industrial technology. Factory-farmed chickens
are not only in factories: they are regarded by
the chicken industry as factories. The hen,
originally a wild jungle fowl, and once an
archetype of motherhood, has been converted,
economically and rhetorically, to an “egg-laying
If hens spoke human language, they would
say with the women whose value in Margaret
Atwood’s book The Handmaid’s Tale resides solely
in their reproductive organs, “We are
containers. It is only the insides of our bodies
that are important,” and of their captors, they
would agree: “They didn’t care what they did to
your feet or your handsÅ For [their] purposes your
feet and your hands are not essential.”
Like the existence of prisoners in
concentration camps, the existence of chickens
in the poultry industry is marked by a ceaseless
interplay between forced labor and extermination,
between existence as bodily “performance” and
existence as industrial waste.
The forced labor of chickens on factory
farms is internalized forced labor. Like
everything else in their lives, including their
lives, the work imposed on these birds is
This is because, in addition to its
being conducted inside total confinement
buildings, the work has been built into the
chicken’s genome. The bird’s body is now locked
into a state of perpetual warfare with itself and
with the essential nature of the chicken as such.
A former chicken farmer captures
something of the cruel and unnatural burden
embedded within these birds when she writes that
“the sign of a good meat flock is the number of
birds dying from heart attacks.”
Factory-farmed chickens are designed not
only to be slaughtered at early ages, but to die
prematurely regardless. They are forced to
produce too many eggs if they are “laying” hens,
and to generate, from the overstrained pumping
of their hearts, too much muscle tissue if they
are “broiler” chickens.
Industry sources say that hens used for
egg production are so overwrought that they
exhibit the “emotionality” of “hysteria,” and
that something as simple as an electrical storm
can produce “an outbreak of hysteria” in
four-to-eight-week-old “broiler” chickens.
These chickens are suffering in systems inimical
to their basic nature, in ways that could equal
and even exceed the suffering of human prisoners.
Impregnating chickens with induced
pathologies and forced-labor pain starts in the
genetics laboratory. Experiments on chickens are
conducted in an underworld of corporate and
governmental terrorism euphemized as “basic
research,” “biomedical research,” “toxicity
research,” and “agricultural research.”
Just as there were no restraints on what
the Nazis felt they could do in the concentration
camps to human prisoners, so there are no
restraints on what human beings are doing and
will continue to do to chickens.

United Poultry Concerns promotes
compassionate and respectful treatment of
domestic fowl. This column is derived from
Karen Davis’ book The Holocaust and the Henmaid’s
Tale: A Case for Comparing Atrocities, reviewed
on page 22.

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