Keep eating chicken—but ask for some justice on the side


Consumers like you have the power to change a booming poultry industry that treats its workers as disposable commodities.

With chicken now the most popular meat consumed by Americans, poultry plants in the US are churning out 8.5 billion birds a year in an ever-expanding array of cuts and concoctions. How do the companies do it? On the backs of roughly 250,000 workers who, until now, have been discouraged from speaking out about the punishing conditions and climate of fear inside the plants.

Today, Oxfam America is launching a nationwide campaign to expose the human cost of the chicken we love. Together with a coalition of organizations determined to improve conditions for poultry workers, we are rallying consumers to call on the top four poultry producers—Tyson Foods, Pilgrim’s, Perdue, and Sanderson Farms—to pay their workers fairly, ensure their safety, and give them a greater voice in the workplace.

Backing this rallying cry is Oxfam’s new report, Lives on the Line, which caps two years of research and interviews documenting the excessive injury rates, low wages, and grueling conditions workers endure day after day in plants that are cold, wet, and dangerous. Most of the workers—considered disposable commodities by the industry—are minorities, immigrants, and refugees, and a significant number are women.

“Poultry workers are among the most vulnerable and exploited workers in the United States,” said Ray Offenheiser, President of Oxfam America. “The industry is booming, profits are climbing, but poultry workers remain trapped at the bottom. Oxfam believes the consumer has tremendous power to put pressure on these companies to change their unfair policies and ensure that workers can assert their rights without fear of retribution.”

Crippling injuries

Getting chicken to our plates creates many problems that workers must endure. Most crippling are the injuries—vastly underreported by the industry, which has benefitted from a 2002 change in federal rules on the types of incidents they must record. Dropped from the list were musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs)—exactly the kind of injuries that plague countless workers on the poultry line, where they must process around 30 birds every minute for 8 hours every day. That’s nearly 2,000 chickens each hour and over 14,000 chickens they must process each day.

A Latino poultry worker in Montgomery, Ala. repeatedly hangs recently slaughtered, de-feathered chickens on the constantly moving poultry line. Once they are de-feathered, the chickens are plunged into nearly freezing water to cool; the temperature in the processing rooms hovers around 40 degrees. Photo: Earl Dotter/Oxfam America

By one conservative estimate, workers carry out the same motion—it could be cutting, pulling, or hanging—20,000 times a day. Repetitive strain injuries, with swelling, numbness, and loss of grip, are the inevitable result. The injuries can be long-lasting and sometimes permanent.

“As soon as the first shift leaves, around six o’clock, that’s when it speeds up and starts to get hard. You can’t stand the pain in your shoulders, your hands because of that repetitive movement,” said one poultry worker Oxfam interviewed in North Carolina.

“There are some people with hands so swollen that their gloves don’t fit,” another North Carolina worker said.

Two cents on the dollar

For every dollar consumers spend on McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets, only about two cents goes to workers in the processing plants—an amount that looks even smaller when compared to the amount  Big Poultry’s top executives earn. In the last four years, the chairman of the board at Tyson Foods has seen his pay skyrocket by 260 percent to $8.8 million. Compensation for the president and CEO of Pilgrim’s has climbed even higher, by 290 percent to $9.3 million.

What does a typical poultry worker earn? A tiny fraction of that: Wages for poultry workers average about $11 an hour—or about $440 for a 40-hour work week. The annual income for many poultry workers is between $20,000 and $25,000. Over the course of an 8-hour workday in 2014, the CEO of Sanderson Farms made the entire average annual salary of a line worker.

Climate of fear

But speaking out about the speed of the line and the injury rates is not something workers, who are anxious to hold onto their jobs, can easily do. Some states, like Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia. Mississippi, and North Carolina—the largest poultry producers in the country—have laws that make union organizing very difficult.

Many workers are undocumented and therefore have a tenuous immigration status. Companies may take advantage of workers’ tenuous immigration status through harassment, discrimination, and even threats of deportation.

In addition, many plants also use a “points system” to keep track of workers’ infractions, like absences, mistakes, and tardiness. But the system is random and often unclear to workers, leaving them anxious, confused—and afraid to speak out.

“[The companies] keep a climate of fear where the employees believe that at any moment they can and will be fired,” said Mary Goff, a former staff attorney with Legal Aid of Arkansas. “Then they are able to treat people as a commodity that can be done away with when they want.”

What can you do?

As a consumer, your voice counts with the companies. They’ve listened to your concerns about how chickens are treated and the safety of your food, and the result has been a reduction in the use of antibiotics and an increase in cage-free hens. Now, we believe, they’ll listen when you speak up for the ethical treatment of workers.

Don’t stop eating chicken. But do learn what it takes to bring it to your plate—and then tell Big Poultry to treat its workers right. Sign the petition calling on the top four companies to provide a safe working environment, offer fair pay and benefits, and give their workers a voice.

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