Forced Labor on the Factory Farm

The  Holocaust & The Henmaid’s Tale: 
            A Case for Comparing Atrocities

From The Holocaust and the Henmaid’s Tale: A Case for Comparing Atrocities by Karen Davis, PhD (Lantern Books, 2005)

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, aren’t they 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. And while chickens raised for meat have been forced to become, in the words of Michael Watts, wretched “sites of accumulation,” how does becoming buried in one’s own flesh constitute work, let alone 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.”

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 machine.”

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 hands. . . . 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. “At the end of the laying period the meat-type breeder flock must be liquidated,” says Commercial Chicken Production Manual, with Orwellian nonchalance.

The technology [is] built into buildings and equipment as well as embodied genetically into the chicken itself – Bell and Watson, eds., Commercial Chicken Meat and Egg Production

Internalized Forced Labor

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 invisible. 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.

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

Chickens Hysteria

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. Pathologies of the human psyche have thus been passed into the chicken as an alien experience representing a distortion of the chicken’s own natural form of existence. 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 human-induced pathologies and forced-labor pain starts in the genetics laboratory. Experiments on chickens are conducted in an underworld of corporate 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.

This article slightly modified appeared in the Nov. 2005 issue of Animal People (

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