Supreme Court issues new decision in favor of meat processing workers

By Oxfam
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While workers in meat processing plants need special gear to protect themselves from sharp tools and cold temperatures, plants sometimes refuse to pay for time spent “donning and doffing” equipment. The Supreme Court just decided in the workers’ favor in a case against Tyson involving recovery of lost wages for this time. Photo: John D. Simmons / The Charlotte Observer

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court issued a decision that sided with meat processing workers seeking to recover pay for time spent “donning and doffing” protective gear.

 A bit of sunshine in the gloomy news for most workers in the US Tuesday: the Supreme Court issued a 6-to-2 majority decision siding with workers in an Iowa pork processing plant who had banded together in a lawsuit to recover overtime pay from Tyson Foods.

While the actual case deals with the legalities of the use of statistics in class action lawsuits, one message shone through: meat processing work is “grueling and dangerous,” in the words of Justice Anthony Kennedy, and workers should be compensated for the time they spend preparing appropriately—in this case, putting on and taking off the proper protective gear.

The decision was a rare moment when the news focused on people who do the arduous, dirty work of processing animals for our consumption. An industry and a workforce that are often invisible to consumers.

Last year, Oxfam America chose to focus on the poultry industry, and poultry workers, when we launched our campaign and our report, Lives on the Line. We aimed to expose exactly this kind of dirty business, as a thriving industry is making record profits on the backs of vulnerable workers.

Tyson Foods, the largest poultry company in the US, controls 23 percent of the American chicken market, and employs over 113,000 “team members.” The company is a major force in the local economy in Springdale, AR, where it is headquartered (trucks outside a plant in Springdale).  Photo: Mary Babic / Oxfam America

As the largest poultry company in the country, Tyson Foods has both healthy profits and the opportunity to be the industry leader in improving conditions for poultry workers. Still, they are missing the mark in several crucial ways--for example, the recent data about amputations at their plants was disturbing and last month OSHA, the federal agency charged with worker safety and health, just opened two new investigations at Tyson plants in Texas.   

Tyson’s practices are shared by other poultry companies who squeeze profits out of workers, and do not treat them with the care and dignity that they deserve. Our research and work with partner organizations across the country confirmed that most poultry workers earn low wages, suffer high rates of injury and illness, and often work in a climate of fear. (For more, explore our interactive site, Lives on the Line.)

Among abuses that Oxfam and other organizations have documented: instances when workers were not compensated for time spent “donning and doffing;” myriad times when workers were regularly denied bathroom breaks; nonpayment of wages or overtime; and denial of workers’ compensation for injuries sustained at work.

These women and men work long hours in difficult circumstances, often incurring injuries and illnesses that leave them hurting and debilitated. The plants simply replace them once they’re no longer able to work. Of the roughly 250,000 poultry workers in the US, most are people of color, immigrants, refugees, or even prisoners.

We welcome the decision at the Court, and we join hands with the workers who banded together to seek fair compensation in a dangerous job.

Please join us in this ongoing effort by learning more and signing the petition.

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