Animal Labour: A Social Justice Issue for the 21st Century

May 12 2021

Marine Lercier

What do a cat in the UK Prime Minister’s Cabinet, honeybees who forage, horses who drive a carriage, beavers who build a dam and dogs who detect explosives have in common?[1] At first glance, not much, if you judge by their species. But take a closer look and you will see that they work, whether for the well-being and subsistence of their own communities or towards the health, wealth and welfare of the multispecies society through the production of goods or the provision of services.[2] While some countries in the world provide minimal labour protection standards for some working animals in their animal welfare legislation to prevent and punish acts of cruelty in the work demanded of animals – especially with regards to species such as horses and dogs – such protection is woefully inadequate.[3] There is a need to better protect working animals from a labour-based approach, beyond their conception as commodities or labour resources in the laws regulating their ‘use’ by humans, as animals are sentient, conscious, intelligent and social beings with species-specific and individual needs and preferences.[4] Working animals, even where they are socially acknowledged as such, do not enjoy any status as legal persons anywhere on the planet, nor do they have any labour rights.[5] As this becomes one of the key social justice issues of our time, many questions arise: how should protection be given? To which animals? And on what basis? In recognition of Labour Day this year we held a Roundtable with leading academics to consider the question of animal labour. 

Click here to see this on our YouTube channel. An extended version of this blog post is also available here as a GRN Working Paper. Click here to email the author if you are interested in our upcoming press release and statement on the recognition of animal labour.

[1] Larry the cat is Downing Street’s “chief-mouser” and has recently celebrated 10 years of serving the UK Prime Minister’s Cabinet, holding the “rat-catching portfolio”. The Guardian. Larry, the No 10 cat, celebrates 10 years on the seat of power (13 February 2021)

[2] See Coulter, K. (2016) Beyond Human to Humane: A Multispecies Analysis of Care Work, its Repression, and its Potential. Studies in Social Justice 10(2); Coulter, K. The Conversation. How the hard work of animals benefits us too. (4 May 2018)

[3] For instance, in Argentina’s Anti-Animal Cruelty Law at article 2 (translated from Spanish): “The following shall be considered acts of mistreatment: 1° Not feeding domestic or captive animals in sufficient quantity and quality. 2° Encouraging them to work by means of instruments which, not being for simple stimulation, cause them unnecessary punishment or painful sensations. 3° Making them work excessive hours without providing them with adequate rest, according to the climatic seasons. 4° Employing them at work when they are not in adequate physical condition. 5° Stimulating them with drugs without pursuing therapeutic purposes. 6° Using animals to pull vehicles that are notoriously beyond their strength.” Ley Nº 14.346 de protección a los animales, Argentina, 1954; Under French law, the work of equine athletes is regulated under article A322-128 of the French Sports Code: “An equine animal must not be required to perform work for which she is neither fit nor prepared, which  could  endanger her health and the rider’s safety.”; Article A322-139 could be read as protecting the health of equine workers: “Worn, sick or injured animals, as well as mares in advanced  pregnancy, shall not be used”; while article A322-140 specifically refers to “workings hours” for equines. This remains very embryonic and insufficient to discuss standards governing all aspects of equine work, let alone other species of working animals and other areas of animal labour; For an overview of the standards governing the work of dogs in France: Desvallon, M-B., Bourdin, L., de Granvilliers, B. (2020) Chiens de travail: Manuel juridique sur les chiens de sécurité, de sauvetage et d’assistance. Independently published

[4] As recgonized in Article 13 of the TFEU and in a growing number of countries in the recent years, as animals are not things. Consolidated Version of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, OJ C 202, 7.6.2016, p. 54; For example, since the law n°2015-177 of 16 February 2015, article L515-14 of the French Civil Code states that (translated from French): “Animals are living beings endowed with sensibility. Unless otherwise provided by the laws protecting them, animals are subject to the regime of property.”; Considering the political implications of animal sentience and the need to recognize non-human animals as “workers”, see: Cochrane, A. (2018) Sentientist Politics: A Theory of Global Inter-Species Justice. OUP; Declaring that “humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness”, see: The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, proclaimed in Cambridge, UK, on July 7, 2012; On the intelligence of non-human animals, see: Christen, Y. (2020) Aux yeux de la science: l’animal, une personne comme une autre? In La Personnalité Juridique de l’Animal. Les Animaux liés à un Fonds. Regad, C., Riot, C. (eds). LexisNexis, pp. 27-40; Christen, Y. (2009) L’animal est-il une personne? Flammarion; de La Bigne, Y. (2018) Les secrets de l’intelligence animale. Larousse ; de Waal, F. (2018) Sommes-nous trop “bêtes” pour comprendre l’intelligence des animaux? Babel; Mouthon, G. (2020) L’intelligence des animaux liés à un fonds. Ce que la science a découvert et ses incidences en justice internationale. In La Personnalité Juridique de l’Animal. Les Animaux liés à un Fonds. Regad, C., Riot, C. (eds). LexisNexis, pp. 41-57

[5] See: Shaw, R. (2018) A case for recognizing the rights of animals as workers. Journal of Animal Ethics 8, pp. 192-208. In the meantime, labour-related rights for animals have been proposed notably by Blattner, Cochrane and Coulter. Blattner, C. E. (2020) Animal Labour: Toward a Prohibition of Forced Labour and a Right to Freely Choose One’s Work. In Animal Labour: A New Frontier of Interspecies Justice? Blattner, C. E., Coulter, K., Kymlicka, W. (eds) OUP; Cochrane, A. (2016) Labour Rights for Animals. In The Political Turn in Animal Ethics. Garner, R., O’Sullivan, S. (eds.) Rowman and Littlefied; Coulter, K. (2020) Towards Humane Jobs and Work-Lives for Animals. In Animal Labour: A new frontier of interspecies justice? Blattner, C. E., Coulter, K., Kymlicka, W. (eds). OUP