Jake Pointer is a PhD researcher in Sociology in the School of Geography, Politics and Sociology. His project concerns a sociological understanding of migrants working in the UK Industrial Meat Processing sector (IMP); specifically, abattoirs and cutting plants.
IMP is a migrant-dominated occupation in the UK, but it’s also male-dominated. One of the aims of the project is to understand why there are so many migrants in IMP, but another question raised whilst conducting the project was, why are there so many men in this sector? To answer this, the project utilises a combination of theory and interviews with meat workers, and the conclusions (thus far) are split into two sections: the physical and the emotional. Regarding the physical, IMP work demands the use of the body. Often tasks involve hard manual labour such as heavy lifting, cutting, skinning, de-boning, packing and, of course, killing, with physical competence being prized as a masculine ideal. This is true for other manual jobs such as building or factory work. Furthermore, IMP is often seen as undesirable by society, but the aspects that make it so are gendered. Meat work is dangerous; cuts and slips are common, with amputations and on-the-job deaths occasionally recorded. Dealing with raw flesh is seen as repugnant for many. These aspects can be framed through masculine ideals; pride in the ability to ‘stomach’ such work or to ‘man up’ and tackle dangerous tasks on the job.
The emotions in IMP are also gendered, with workplace norms dictating which are acceptable and unacceptable. Empathy, for example, may be regarded as a feminine emotion and is, therefore, inappropriate. The successful slaughterhouse worker deploys a stoic approach, detaching themselves from the morality of killing. Some scholars have noted discourses around ‘providing’ for the community almost like a hunter/gatherer, a sort of primitive breadwinner role. As with the hunter, the slaughterman cannot feel pity or remorse; the animals are merely a means to an end, like wood used to make furniture. This does not mean other emotions are not ‘appropriate’. Humour has been found in many IMP facilities, with jokes often aimed towards those who do not fit the desired masculine ideal, which helps to exclude outsiders. However, humour may facilitate pernicious forms of banter such as harassment. Whilst unpleasant, the successful receiving of harassment is often judged as a demonstration of toughness, almost a rite of passage. Men who can receive these will then be accepted into the workplace culture.
Migrants make up the majority of meat workers, but so do men. IMP work is both physically and emotionally embedded with traditional notions of masculinity; it’s physical, dangerous and needs a strong stomach, with these sacrifices being for the good of wider community. Whilst there is a slowly growing number of women in this sector, for the foreseeable future meat work will remain a ‘man’s job’.
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Hamilton, L. and McCabe, D. (2016) ‘‘It’s just a job’: Understanding Emotion Work, De-animalization and the Compartmentalization of Organized Animal Slaughter’ Organization, vol. 32, vol. 3, pp. 330-350.
McLoughlin, E. (2018) ‘Knowing Cows: Transformative Mobilizations of Human and Non-human Bodies in an Emotionography of the Slaughterhouse’ Gender, Work and Organisation, vol. 26, no. 3, pp. 322-342.