Welcoming progress for poultry workers in the US

Members of the poultry worker coalition rallied outside the Case Farms poultry plant in Morganton, NC, in August 2017. Mary Babic/Oxfam

Working in a poultry plant is tough. But it just may be getting better—finally. This past year brought some light to the darkness (and the cold, noise, and wet) for poultry plant workers. We look back at a significant year…

Since Oxfam joined forces with a coalition that’s been working for poultry worker justice for many years, we’ve seen some rough times; but we’ve also seen some important wins. The past year or so has been tumultuous, and significant. It’s a good time to look back and assess how the landscape has shifted.

“It’s a testament to the resiliency of many poultry workers and advocates that we were able to achieve these meaningful moments during the last year,” says Alexandre Galimberti, senior advocacy and collaborations advisor at Oxfam. “We’re committed to standing with poultry workers to elevate the voices of women leaders and workers, and to collaborate with all our allies and partners to ensure dignity in the workplace for everyone.”

Workplace commitments from the largest poultry producer

April of last year saw a landmark announcement from the largest poultry producer in the country, Tyson Foods, wherein it committed to improving conditions, transparency, and compensation for its poultry workforce. Last month, the company released a sustainability report that tracked progress on these commitments (including positive statements and policies reflective of, advancing, and in some cases embodying the commitments). 

Among the commitments:

  • Running line speeds in accord with the number of workers available, and ensuring that people are available to step in when a worker needs a break.
  • Workers having the ability to stop the line for personnel or food safety issues.
  • Regularly scheduled rest breaks, including restroom breaks when needed.
  • Worker Safety Committees empowered to promote health and safety rights and processes, including non-retaliation for reporting injuries.
  • Company-wide transparency and annual reporting, including third party audits.

Oxfam welcomes the steps Tyson has taken to protect and reward the thousands of people in its processing workforce. We also encourage the company to go further toward full transparency; and urge other companies in the industry to step up to Tyson’s level of responsibility, commitment and engagement. Moving forward, Oxfam will seek to validate progress on these commitments with organizations which engage with workers on the ground in Tyson plants.

In addition, Tyson announced an expanded partnership with the largest union representing poultry workers, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), around worker health and safety. We urge the continued implementation of this program to all union and non-union plants, consistent with Tyson’s commitments.

Why poultry workers?

Jobs in poultry processing easily fall into the 3D category: dirty, dangerous, and demeaning. When Oxfam started researching labor conditions in the industry, we were shocked by the reality for most workers: low wages, high rates of injury and illness, and a pernicious climate of fear.

Fortunately, we also found a community of people who’d been working for years to improve life for poultry workers. This broad and robust coalition includes workers and staffers at workers’ centers, unions, civil rights groups, nonprofit advocacy groups, and a variety of experts with long experience in government, academia, and the law. To this day, we are impressed by the courage of the workers who are willing to tell their stories, by the dedication of the organizers who spend day and night nurturing these relationships, and by the attorneys and physicians who represent workers and advocates.

At Oxfam, we started by joining the effort to prevent the USDA from increasing the maximum speed allowed on the poultry processing line—from a surprising 140 birds per minute to a mind-boggling 175 birds per minute. This proposal, which so clearly put the profits of the poultry industry ahead of the needs and rights of the people in the workforce, was emblematic of a long history of speeding up production and productivity at the expense of the workers on the line.

Four years later, we’re still holding the line with these good folks — rallying outside poultry plants, meeting with government officials, speaking at shareholder meetings, holding interviews with the media, and so much more. And, while we’re facing a long climb uphill, especially in today’s political and economic climate, we’ve made a lot of important strides.

Indeed, today we face increased challenges coming from the dismantling of federal regulatory agencies that are meant to protect workers, along with an increased climate of hostility against immigrant and minority workers; but our coalition continues to make some significant advances.

Oxfam and allies rallied outside a Perdue poultry plant in Salisbury, MD in April 2017. We collected and made a symbolic delivery of over 100,000 petitions urging the company to improve conditions and compensation for poultry workers. Mary Babic/Oxfam

Keeping up the pressure on poultry companies

At the same time that Tyson has raised the bar with its public commitments to an array of sustainability practices, we are urging other poultry companies to improve conditions and compensation for workers.

  • Pilgrim’s: For the second year in a row, Oxfam filed a shareholder resolution about board diversity (Pilgrim’s board has no women at all), and attended the annual meeting to speak out about it. The company has consistently refused to meet with Oxfam.
  • Case Farms: In August, the Western North Carolina Worker Center (WNCWC) hosted a convening of the Poultry Workers Coalition in Morganton, NC. We took a break from meeting to head to the local Case Farms plant, where we rallied, and earned substantial media coverage. (We tried to meet with plant managers about workers’ access to bathroom breaks, but they turned us away.)
  • Sanderson Farms: At the annual general meeting of Sanderson Farms (the fourth largest poultry company) in February, Oxfam and As You Sow filed a resolution to discontinue routine use of antibiotics in healthy animal populations. While the same proposal in 2017 garnered 30 percent of the vote, in 2018 it jumped to 43 percent in favor.
  • Perdue: In April, Oxfam and CATA (Él Comite de Apoyo a Trabajadores Agricolas) held a rally outside a Perdue plant in Salisbury, MD. We stood tall with our allies, and together we collected more than 100,000 petition signatures from consumers who are calling for improved conditions and compensation and made a symbolic delivery to Perdue’s doorstep.

As the industry pushes to raise processing line speed, the coalition rallies—and wins!

In October, we were dismayed to find ourselves fighting again to defeat a new proposal to increase maximum line speed in poultry plants. This time, the National Chicken Council filed a petition with the USDA to lift the cap altogether.

Allies from national policy groups, labor unions, and animal rights organizations joined poultry workers to attend a meeting with the acting undersecretary of Food Safety and Inspection Service. In addition to giving testimonies in person, Oxfam and many allies sent comment letters to USDA.

Shortly thereafter, Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ) organized a rally outside the USDA calling on the agency to reject the petition. Workers from many states traveled to DC, including members of the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) who work at poultry plants in Alabama.

Finally, a victory in the new year! As the USDA announced its decision to reject the line speed petition, workers and activists celebrated while vowing to remain vigilant about the possibility of individual processing plants applying for waivers from the current limits of 140 birds per minute.

Poultry worker coalition grows, rallies together

  • In December, Oxfam and allies attended a national conference of the occupational health coalition (COSHCON) in Baltimore to focus on building leadership and sharing strategy.
  • April marked the annual observation of Workers’ Memorial Week, a somber time to consider constant workplace dangers. Several allies sent important reminders about the risks that workers face in poultry processing plants, and we joined the effort to sound the alarm here.
  • In July, the WNCWC held a women’s congress, where poultry workers learned leadership skills and developed strategy for their campaign at Case Farms.

Federal government

While the federal government agencies that protect workers are under duress (budgets slashed, regulations rolled back), many dedicated staff continue to work on behalf of US working people.

In December, the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) published a report that confirmed all the accounts that we had heard over the years about the widespread climate of fear in poultry plants. The GAO recommends that OSHA increase its outreach to workers as part of the health and safety inspections process.

Looking ahead, we’ll continue to partner with allies, to engage with companies, to help make responsible companies stronger and more sustainable--and ultimately to improve working conditions and livelihoods for all poultry workers.

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