Distance, concealment and control: Politics of sight in the workplace

Debra King, Flinders University

Timothy Pachirat Every Twelve Seconds: Industrialized Slaughter and the Politics of Sight, New Haven, Yale University Press, 2011 (224 pp.) ISBN 9-78030015-267-8 (hard cover) RRP $51.95.

Behind my job as an intellectual worker in a comparatively sanitised organisational context, is a bevy of people who kill and process the animals I eat, clean the toilets and kitchens in my home and workplace, have wiped the noses and backsides of my children and will possibly provide personal care to my parents, and, in time, me. Work that deals with death, decay, bodily fluids or is morally questionable is often called dirty work; and, no matter how essential to the maintenance of life, in our ‘civilised’ world this work has become physically hidden and socially veiled. Timothy Pachirat’s Every Twelve Seconds: Industrialized Slaughter and the Politics of Sight seeks to bring it into view for those of us who benefit, so that we take responsibility for how workers who produce the goods and services we consume are treated, and, ultimately, for our relationship to the subjects of their labour (whether animal or human).

Every Twelve Seconds challenges us to reflect upon how ‘distance and concealment operate as mechanisms of power in modern society’ (p. 3) and how this is facilitated through practices of surveillance and regulation. For Pachirat, the politics of sight seeks to make ‘visible what is hidden and to breach, literally or figuratively, zones of confinement in order to bring about social and political transformation’ (p. 236). Using the industrial slaughterhouse to show how work becomes invisible not only to society as a whole, but to the workers employed in such organisations, Pachirat argues that the politics of sight could also be relevant to other zones of confinement: nursing homes, for example. Intriguing! What is the relationship between the organisation of work in the industrial slaughter of animals and that in the institutionalisation of death (or at least dying) for frail aged people? How might a politics of sight inform our understanding of nursing homes? I return to these questions later.


As an ethnographer working in an industrial slaughterhouse, Pachirat evokes the visceral, moral and sensory reality of working in a slaughterhouse. His descriptions are vivid without being sensational. He allows for ambiguities and contradictions without losing sight of his topic: the organisation of the mass slaughter of cattle for profit. Much of the conversation around this book has focused on the issues it raises around animal rights and the treatment of animals in slaughterhouses (see, for example, Taylor 2012a; Grandin 2012), and the links with consumerism in a meat-eating culture wherein the demand for meat has tripled over the last 30 years (Taylor 2012b). My interest, however, was in the organisation of work within the slaughterhouse. In particular, how work is constructed in the interface between concealment and surveillance to a) retain profitability, requiring high turnover, efficient production processes and questionable working conditions; b) meet (or not) regulatory requirements; and c) enable workers to do dirty, dangerous, morally ambiguous and demeaning work day after day. That is, how work is constructed to produce distancing from the tasks of killing and dismembering cattle while workers are physically and mentally immersed in their jobs.

Pachirat’s descriptions are
vivid without being sensational.

Pachirat’s work in the slaughterhouse provided him with multiple perspectives from which to view the work involved. He shows how divisions of labour are constructed spatially, linguistically and visually. The layout of the workplace separates the work of killing from the work of processing body parts and the work of administration and management. Even on the kill floor, the kill area is spatially distinct from the area in which the dead animal is transformed into a carcass. These divisions are reinforced through the language used to talk about different spaces and kinds of work within the slaughterhouse (for example, inside/outside, clean/dirty, upstairs/downstairs, main line/auxiliary or supervision/production). Visually, workers in these areas can be distinguished by the colour of their hats and the type of clothing they wear: this makes it is easy to see when a worker is out of place, or when a supervisor is nearby. These spatial, linguistic and visual mechanisms not only construct divisions of labour, Pachirat shows how they create distance from the individual animal and the actual work of killing.

This distancing enables animals to be treated with disrespect and even overt cruelty. Pachirat’s description of his time on the kill floor, sending animals down the cattle chute to the knocking box, demonstrates the difficulty workers face in maintaining an ethical attitude toward the animals. Despite his efforts to treat the cattle well, he found that the focus on a particular aspect of the production process (keeping the animals moving) and the speed at which he was compelled to work (fast and continuous) required the use of unreasonable force. In other words, acquiescence to the needs of the employer for profitability took precedence over any ethical need to treat animals with care. Associated with this was pressure from other workers who could not afford to lose their job. For while it might be dirty, demeaning and precarious work, it was often all they could get given their education, ethnicity, age or experience.

The normalisation process through which workers become inured to the work of killing is further highlighted in Pachirat’s narrative of working in the cooler room in which the speed of production, the monotony, the sensory assault from the smell of blood, the pain of intense coldness and the continual noise, produce a focus on the immediate work and on getting through the day without mistakes or disruption. There is little energy available to think about improving the workplace or worrying about the animal that once belonged to the liver he was hanging. Indeed, while Pachirat raises the question of how workers distance themselves from the moral responsibility of killing, his experience demonstrates just how difficult it is to sustain a sense of moral responsibility in this kind of work. It is entirely likely that people who do feel some moral responsibility for the animals would not last long in such work, resulting in a cohort of workers that are more likely to be able to deal with the industrial slaughter of thousands of cattle each day.


There is little energy available to think about improving the workplace.

While workers certainly have some moral responsibility for the treatment of cattle in the slaughterhouse, Pachirat acknowledges that the owner(s) of the company, the government and the consumer should also bear responsibility. As one of his jobs in the slaughterhouse was in quality control, Pachirat was well placed to look at how governments enact this moral responsibility through regulating the industry, specifically quality control regulations around hygiene and food safety. Differentiating between quality control (food safety) and the control of quality (surveillance), Pachirat shows that even when workers have oversight over the total process, the technical and bureaucratic requirements deflect attention away from the violence of and responsibility for killing. What was particularly clear from his experience in quality control was the minimal extent to which ‘quality regimes’ prevent poor practices. This was not so much because workers were not complying, but because the tensions and ‘game-playing’ between the owner and government agents created an environment where compliance was performed rather than practised. Effort went into maintaining enough of an illusion of compliance so that non-compliance reports were minimised through sleight of hand (and mind) rather than through actual compliance. On the other hand, quality control workers had surveillance over the entire operation and were used to enforce discipline on the kill floor and throughout the production process. This authority was not necessarily used to ensure food safety, but to ensure workers were complying with the needs of management for maximising profit (that is, managing the speed and consistency of the production line). In the process, surveillance was turned into what Pachirat calls ‘malveillance’. The difficulty of working in a situation requiring the ‘simultaneous concealment (of food safety and humane handling violations) and surveillance (of kill floor workers) was a key factor in Pachirat abandoning his fieldwork several months earlier than originally planned.


Does Pachirat’s conceptual and theoretical framework offer any insight into the organisation of work in other zones of confinement, such as nursing homes? Although both organised around the management of death and dying, there is a different temporal framework which impacts on the construction of work. In nursing homes, the majority of work takes place before death, while in slaughterhouses, most work occurs after it. Care workers primarily work with living bodies, while slaughterhouse workers work with dead bodies. There is also, of course, a different object of labour—humans compared to animals—although some would argue that both are sentient beings which should be treated with respect. Despite these differences I can see that many of the conceptual tools that Pachirat uses in relation to the slaughterhouse are equally relevant to nursing homes.

There are good nursing homes just
as there are good slaughterhouses.

Conceptualising the division of labour in nursing homes as spatially, linguistically and visually produced could help to develop a better understanding of the social relations within which care work takes place. Although there has been some interest in the spatial analysis of informal care (Milligan 2009), space has not played a large role in our understanding of the organisation of work in nursing homes. To do this we would need to expand the conceptualisation of the aged care workforce to include not only direct care workers and their professional boundaries, but also ancillary staff, administrative staff, management and agency/self-employed workers. By including all workers and mapping their spatial-structural relationships, Pachirat shows the extent to which power relations are embedded in the everyday workings of an organisation as well as its policies. Given that power in nursing homes operates more through indirect and self-surveillance than direct surveillance, the contribution that space, language and sight makes to the internalisation (or not) of power relations might help to fill some gaps in our knowledge about strategies of worker resistance and acquiescence, of care provision and care avoidance, and of ‘performing’ and practising quality.

Pachirat’s concept of ‘distancing’ may also provide insights into power relations within nursing homes. In the slaughterhouse, distancing was viewed as a strategy which conceals the actual work of killing. In nursing homes, distancing is more likely to be a strategy which conceals the actual work of caring for someone who is dying. While the quality of relationships between care workers and residents in nursing homes is related to the quality of care, employers often seek to create and maintain a certain amount of distance in this relationship: enough to enable efficiencies in service delivery and minimise the impact of loss (either through death of the resident or changes in staff) on productivity. Some workers clearly see this distance creation as a breach of their moral responsibility for residents; others develop professional boundaries in order to manage the distance; while there are undoubtedly some workers who use the distance to manage workloads. A spatial analysis of nursing homes that includes concepts such as distance could therefore reveal new ways of interpreting how social relations construct the work.

There are certainly good nursing homes just as there are good slaughterhouses: where the bodies are processed humanely, with care and respect, as individuals, as living, sensate beings. What Pachirat’s case study shows, though, is that the sheer volume of bodies requiring processing makes it very difficult to run a slaughterhouse humanely and make a profit. This connection between volume and quality had an adverse impact on both the treatment of animals and the treatment of workers. While nursing homes are faced with similar issues regarding the increasing numbers of residents and the need to be profitable, many face staff shortages which require strategies for retaining workers. It would be expected, therefore, that nursing home workers would be in a stronger position than slaughterhouse workers to improve their work conditions. What is clear in both cases is that there is a relationship between the quality of care and the quality of work.

Workers in nursing homes are subjected to multiple gazes.

Applying Pachirat’s analysis of quality regimes to nursing homes could also be illuminating. Nursing homes are heavily regulated: they have to meet accreditation standards, engage in a compliance regime and operate within medical/health guidelines (see Braithwaite, Makkai & Braithwaite 2007). While there is information about these regulations, there is little research on how employers and workers manage the control of quality, including surveillance practices. It is clear from the number of non-compliance orders, reports of ‘rogue’ care workers and complaints from the families of residents that quality regimes have not resulted in simple compliance (Marcus 2010; Department of Health and Ageing 2012; Hardwick 2012; Levy 2012; Sara 2012). Understanding how, why and where resistance occurs—where quality control is ‘performed’ but not practised—could inform the kinds of change needed to deliver quality care and enhance the lives of residents in nursing homes.


Pachirat argues that a politics of sight will create the conditions for the social and political transformation of zones of confinement such as slaughterhouses and nursing homes. I was not convinced by his argument, although to be fair he was also less convinced by it at the end of his book than in the beginning. While I think much is to be gained from using his spatial and visual framework for analysing work, the idea that such workplaces will be transformed by making them more transparent and subjected to multiple gazes is questionable. Even in the slaughterhouse Pachirat showed that being subjected to the gaze of both employers and government regulators resulted in new practices of concealment rather than revelation. While operating under multiple gazes might open workers up to the possibilities of complying with and internalising different governance regimes—some of which might be ‘better’ or more morally responsible than others—the power relations between these regimes needs to be considered. In the end, quality control workers in the slaughterhouse chose to accede to the gaze of the employer who had the power to provide them with an income, rather than the gaze of those who required them to take moral responsibility.

While their work is often hidden from public sight, workers in nursing homes are already subjected to multiple gazes: of their employer, government regulators, professional bodies, residents and the families of residents. Yet problems with quality control remain. A politics of sight might not totally transform the organisation of nursing homes, but it might well provide insights into how systems and relations of power and knowledge interact in the construction of work. In the end, any improvement in the conditions of work and the treatment of sentient beings in zones of confinement is to be welcomed.


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Debra King is a sociologist at the National Institute of Labour Studies, Flinders University. She has a long-standing interest in examining the meaning and experience of work, focusing on the emotional dimensions of work. Her research has been conducted in a variety of contexts including aged care, child care, health care, social movements and management.

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