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Why don't poultry workers just quit? And other frequently asked questions

By Oxfam
Poultry workers and allies protest outside of Tyson's headquarters in Arkansas. Photo: Coco McCabe / Oxfam America

You asked, we've answered! Over the past few days, you've asked a lot of great questions about poultry workers and their working conditions. Poultry workers need you to continue to spread the word about life inside America's poultry plants, so we've compiled answers to some of your most frequently asked questions.

Why don’t people leave if they’re treated poorly? Why don’t the workers just quit?

For many people, work in the poultry industry can be initially attractive:  the jobs are full-time, and they pay over the minimum wage (barely; earnings average around $11 an hour, even after many years on the job). Many of these people have families to support – in the US and sometimes in their country of origin.

Many people move to the area where a plant is located specifically to work in poultry. Most poultry plants are located in rural areas where they are the largest (sometimes the only) employer in the area. If they find they want to, or need to, leave, it may not be possible to find another job.

Many poultry workers can’t afford to move elsewhere—they struggle simply to survive on their earnings. In fact, many of them turn to food pantries and community services or government assistance (if they are eligible). In addition, many of them have come to the US to support their families in their country of origin, and send money back as often as possible. Many workers refer to children, parents, and relatives who depend on their earnings just to stay alive.

In addition, the poultry industry has a complicated history of tapping marginalized populations for its workforce. Today, most of the 250,000 workers in poultry processing are minorities, immigrants, refugees, and even prisoners.

Many of these workers face an array of obstacles that prevent them from standing up and speaking out about harassment, injuries, under-compensation, overwork, and other abuses in the workplace. In the words of many, the industry takes advantage of workers who live and work in a climate of fear.

Many workers have tenuous immigration status, which puts them in a vulnerable position. They fear deportation, which could put families in the US and in their country of origin at risk. Their situation may also mean that they are ineligible for unemployment benefits, and, depending on the state, may have a hard time filing for workers’ compensation.

These workers are terrified of losing their jobs. Lives depend on these wages.

This fits into a larger pattern in this country. Jobs for workers without a college degree or specialized training are hard to find, and pose many challenges: they may be part-time, schedules may be unpredictable, benefits may be few.

Workers get the message that if they want to keep their job, they need to endure what happens inside the plant—or, in the words of many, “allí está la puerta” (“there’s the door”). 

 

Why not hire a lawyer? If this is true why hasn’t someone sued Tyson by now?

Poultry workers are some of the most vulnerable people in the US. Most are minorities, immigrants, refugees, or even prisoners. They work long hours, under arduous conditions, for low wages. Many are supporting families here and in their country of origin. Many don’t speak English, and the companies often do not provide translators or adequate training in languages that workers understand.

There are countless obstacles standing between workers and a legal claim against a large, multi-billion dollar company.

First, many of them simply don’t know that what the companies are doing is illegal, and don’t understand their rights. Second, they’d have to find, and pay, an attorney who would be willing to represent them (which many workers find daunting if not impossible). Third, it might take weeks, months, or years for a case to make its way through the legal system, during which time the worker may not be employed or eligible for unemployment or workers’ compensation.

Many workers who are injured or disabled find it impossible to file a claim; scarce few would believe that the legal system would support their claims of being denied a bathroom break. 


Isn’t this just a problem of a few bad supervisors, not a problem with the companies overall?

Poultry is a $50 billion industry that churns out 8.5 billion chickens a year. Poultry companies are thriving: Americans consume record amounts of chicken (average 89 pounds per capita annually), profits are up, stock prices are at record levels, and executive compensation is skyrocketing.

Much of this amazing growth is due to the speed and efficiency of the processing plants; and much of that pressure is exerted directly on the workers. Line speeds have doubled in the last 40 years, and the industry wants to keep increasing that number (they recently sought to raise the cap from 140 birds per minute to 175 birds per minute).

On the plant floor, the speed, and the pressure to meet production quotas, is intense. Supervisors need to make sure the line never stops. Workers stand on the line for hours at a time, cutting and trimming up to 45 birds a minute – thousands of movements a day.

So while companies may have policies that state respect for workers, the reality is that supervisors face tremendous odds in adhering to the company policies. Most are scrambling to keep up with production or meet daily quotas.

Of all the companies, Tyson Foods, the country’s largest poultry producer, is the only one that has a publicly stated policy on bathroom breaks. The company states that workers are able to use the bathroom whenever they need to; the “Team Member Bill of Rights” specifies that employees receive “adequate room for meal and rest breaks” and “reasonable time for necessary restroom breaks during shift production time.”

But evidence points to the reality that those policies are not being followed at the plant level: Oxfam interviewed workers from Tyson plants across half a dozen states, and partner organizations conducted surveys of scores of workers, and most workers reported problems with adequate breaks.

None of the other companies has a publicly stated policy around bathroom breaks.

Poultry companies are responsible for policies and practices throughout their operations. They establish guidelines which should influence conduct of executives, managers, supervisors, and workers.

 

Aren’t there laws preventing this? Why don’t we leave this to the government to handle?

The government agency responsible for workplace safety is the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). OSHA has a “sanitation standard” which requires employers to provide their employees with toilet facilities.

In an industrial setting, where a production line needs to keep running, OSHA notes, “As long as there are sufficient relief workers to assure that employees need not wait an unreasonably long time to use the bathroom, OSHA believes that these systems comply with the standard.”

Research by many experts and organizations indicates that poultry plants rarely employ enough “relief workers” (also known as floaters or line assistants), and that thousands of workers struggle to deal with this every day: they hold it too long, restrict liquid intake, urinate on themselves, or wear diapers.

OSHA recently launched targeted inspection programs in the poultry industry, and will be investigating violations.

Unfortunately, OSHA is a small and underfunded agency, which only goes into a handful of poultry plants every year. The agency has enough personnel to inspect just 1 percent of all workplaces in the US each year; it would take 114 years to inspect each workplace once.

Obviously, we need to engage the companies in taking responsibility for the health and safety of their workers.

Fortunately, poultry workers do have some champions in Congress, and we appreciate their leadership and tenacity on the workers’ behalf. Recently, 18 Members of Congress wrote a letter to OSHA calling on the agency to continue its program of increased oversight and enforcement in the poultry industry, which has been beneficial in addressing health and safety concerns in poultry plants.

 

Why don’t you have a petition?

But we do! When Oxfam launched our campaign, we mounted a petition drive, and we gathered well over 150,000 signatures from consumers demanding that the big poultry companies treat their workers better.

On May 11, we delivered these petitions to Tyson Foods in Springdale, AR.

We welcome you to add your name to this list! 

But we are now also asking consumers to speak to these companies directly, so they can hear from their customers. Today, we urge you to take more direct action: reach out on social media directly to the big four poultry companies, which control over 60 percent of the chicken market in the US: Tyson Foods, Pilgrim’s, Perdue, and Sanderson Farms. These companies care what you think and will listen to you.

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