Poultry producers like Tyson, Perdue, Pilgrim Pride, and Sanderson Farms control 60 percent of the industry and employ about 375,000 workers. Like all corporations their focus is to make money for their shareholders. They make cheap food available to the public while making huge profits and rewarding huge compensation packages to their executive officers. For every $1 profit on some McDonald’s McNuggets, two cents goes to the workers who produced it.
Oxfam America has undertaken an extensive investigation into the workplace practices of these producers by interviewing current and former employees. Some of the results point to massive violations of workers’ rights, including frequent injury, the denial of bathroom breaks, and significant risks to health.
Oxfam America is a global organization trying to produce long-term solutions to some of our core problems, like injustice. Their campaigns involve educating the public about problems, trying to change unjust laws and practices, and develop programs so people will learn to be more assertive about their rights.
Here are the results of some of their findings: Workers process more than 30 chickens per minute, which equates to 14,000 chickens per day. This contributes to the large number of repetitive strain injuries with each task completed tens of thousands of times each day. The usual set up in these sorts of jobs is for a worker to be given one specific aspect of the process line, repeating the same motion over and over, with no variation.
Workers in the poultry industry are also reportedly denied adequate bathroom breaks during their shifts with some having to wait over an hour before being allowed to visit the bathroom. The denial of regular bathroom access on the job is a violation of federal workplace and safety laws.
The main problem stems from the speed of the overall poultry operation. Under U.S. law the maximum number of birds that can be processed per minute is 140. So when workers ask permission of supervisors to use the bathroom, this has the potential to slow down operations. If a worker needs to break, he or she has to find a replacement worker, and there aren’t enough workers to ensure this can occur. So the drive to keep the production going means pressuring the workers to keep on task. There have also been reports of supervisors mocking or ignoring worker requests to use the bathroom. Some people even wear diapers on the job so they can relieve themselves without leaving their place on the line. They also restrict their fluid intake to dangerous levels to avoid having to use the bathroom.
These industries are usually located on the edge of highways in huge concrete buildings with tall fences and protected by guards. They operate around the clock and together produce about 8.5 billion chickens each year. The air inside has a stench of chicken feces and fried chicken and is pungent. The temperature is kept at 40 degrees Fahrenheit to decrease the chance of any bacteria spoiling the chicken. This creates a very cold environment that contributes to the injuries from the repetitive nature of the work. As well as the fluids reported above, workers are also exposed to high levels of chlorine and other chemicals used in the clean up process.
Workers report that they are fearful of speaking out about any problems in the workplace as they risk being punished and fired. Basically, they are prepared to endure pain, discomfort, injury, and humiliation to keep their jobs. Their main concerns are health and job security.
The worker turnover rate in the the poultry industry is as high as 100 percent each year. The industry seems to take advantage of people who have limited options, e.g. minority groups, immigrants, refugees, and prisoners. Also, with the large number of injuries, workers are simply let go if they are unable to work. There are always unknowing recruits waiting in the sidelines until it is their turn to be replaced as well.
There are a few plants in the U.S. that have organized unions. It is only here that bathroom breaks are not reported as a problem. These plants also seem to inform workers about their rights and they are given a voice about any problems they experience on the job.
An investigation was undertaken in 2013 by the Southern Poverty Law Center when they did a survey of Alabama poultry workers. They found similar findings to the Oxfam America study, including a high incidence of repetitive motion injuries, cuts and gashes, and a restriction on bathroom breaks. 79 percent reported that breaks were at the discretion of the supervisor with workers reportedly taking off their protective gear quickly while racing to the bathroom in order to get back to their place in the line within the set time. Otherwise they risk being disciplined. There were similar reports of slippery floors due to fat, blood, water, and other liquids lying around contributing to an unsafe environment. These finding were presented to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in March, 2014. I did some quick searches on Google and I’m not clear of the outcome of the hearings.
A Department of Agriculture proposal, if implemented, will mean line speeds will be allowed to go up to 175 birds per minute. The proposal was rejected in 2014, but the door is still ajar. Without strong unions, the workers in this industry remain poorly protected.
There is a petition available for signing from Sierra Rise telling poultry producers to treat their workers with respect and dignity (see comments below). I hope those reading this post will sign it.
Finally, there is also the issue of animal cruelty with respect to the treatment of animals in the industrial factory farm context. There have fortunately been some advances in this area due to pressure from the public. For example, there are less antibiotics used in raising chickens for slaughter than before. I am convinced there is still need for improvement. There is always the very extreme position that we shouldn’t be eating meat at all which would eliminate the problem completely, but then it would also eliminate 375,000 jobs.
I have mentioned my own personal experiences working in large corporate type environments in another post on this page.