Lives on the line

The high human cost of chicken

What’s not to love about chicken? Healthy, delicious—and cheap.

We eat a lot of it—89 pounds per person each year. Chicken is America’s most popular meat. From nuggets to sandwiches to wings, poultry is a $50-billion industry.

But how does all that chicken reach your plate? It’s not easy to turn a live bird into a bucket of buffalo wings. In fact, it takes a lot of work: hanging, cutting, trimming.

We’ll show you what the poultry industry doesn’t want you to see, and tell you exactly what you can do to help workers in their struggle.

It's possible to raise and process chickens ethically and still run a healthy business. So why is Big Poultry leaving workers behind?

The poultry industry is booming. Consumer demand is growing and profits are climbing. Executive compensation is soaring.

Even the lives of chickens have begun to improve as consumers have voiced concern for their treatment. But one key part of this rocketing industry has been left behind: the people who work processing poultry. Every day, hundreds of thousands of workers become disposable parts of a large, fast, relentless machine.

These women and men stand on the line hour after hour, faced with an endless stream of chicken carcasses. They hang, cut, debone, twist: repeating the same motions tens of thousands of times each shift, with few moments to rest, stretch, or take a bathroom break.

Get a taste in 2 minutes

This video is a quick overview of the interactive story that follows: what the poultry industry doesn’t want you to see and what poultry workers need you to know.

Watch Video

Working on the line takes a toll on body and mind. Poultry workers earn low wages, suffer high injury rates, and endure arduous conditions. John D. Simmons/The Charlotte Observer

It's a tough job to make tender chicken

These are demanding jobs—and the industry doesn’t make it any easier for the workers. In fact, Big Poultry treats workers as replaceable cogs in their machine; turnover in poultry plants can reach as high as 100 percent every year. To find workers willing to do these jobs, the poultry industry exploits vulnerable people who have few other options: minorities, immigrants, and refugees—even prisoners. Because of their precarious situations, most workers are afraid to speak out or do anything that might jeopardize their jobs.

Big Poultry is keeping some crucial information from you.

Lives on the Line

Many of us choose to eat chicken because we believe it is a healthy and more environmentally friendly source of protein than other meats. And many have spoken out to ensure that the conditions under which chickens are raised are improving. We deserve to know where our food comes from.

You need to know what really goes on behind the walls of those poultry plants. So, we collected stories, photos, and video from workers who invited you into their lives to show you what’s wrong and how you can help.

“The supervisor said, ‘Sorry, lady, but no one can cover for you. Hold it awhile more.’ Finally the woman wet her pants.”

Meet Bacilio

The industry squeezes profits and productivity out of these workers. For every dollar spent on McDonald’s McNuggets, only about two cents goes to processing workers. Those workers hang, cut, trim, bread, freeze, and package those chickens—and they get 2 percent of the sale price.

Lives on the Line
Oxfam America

Call on Big Poultry for change

Workers throughout the poultry industry face these problems, but four companies control roughly 60 percent of the American market: Tyson Foods, Pilgrim’s, Perdue, and Sanderson Farms. These companies are so big that if they make changes, other companies may follow.

Big Poultry should improve conditions for workers, by:

  • providing a safe environment in plants;
  • ensuring that workers have the freedom to speak out about problems in the workplace; and
  • compensating workers fairly.

Consumers have already pushed Big Poultry to change: Tyson Foods, Pilgrim’s, and Perdue have all recently pledged to phase out the use of antibiotics from their chicken supply chains. People spoke and they listened. They’ll listen again.

You can help

Demand safe working conditions for poultry workers.

Take action


The Poultry Machine

The booming poultry industry puts increasing pressure on workers

The poultry plant of today is a long way from a red barn on a dusty road. It’s now an industrial factory on the edge of a highway, lights blazing and chimneys pumping.

These plants operate around the clock to process 8.5 billion chickens a year.

Americans now eat three times more chicken than we did 50 years ago. And that means more workers are needed to hang, cut, pull, and trim millions of birds each day.

Industrial chicken

The poultry industry has come a long way. Today it’s a modern model of efficiency and consolidation. Big Poultry has grown from thousands of small farms into an industrial power-house dominated by a handful of companies that control almost everything—from the chickens and feed to the product distribution network. The top four companies control roughly 60 percent of the market.

Inside the processing plants, new technologies make it possible to churn through millions of chickens each day. Machines now handle the birds at several stages, but most of the work is still done by hand: from hanging live chickens to cutting wings to trimming skin. Each worker handles thousands of birds every day. The work is rapid, repetitive, and low paying. The injury rate is high, and the atmosphere is oppressive.

Love Me Tender

Today, Americans prefer chicken cut into parts or processed into forms such as tenders, nuggets, or frozen entrées. As our tastes have changed, the processing work has shifted from the home to processing plants.








See how tastes have changed

Sources for Love Me Tender:
1962 figures: USDA, February 7, 2011
2015 figures: National Chicken Council’s Broiler Industry Marketing Survey Biennial Report

A thousand cuts

As the industry has grown and changed, so have consumers’ tastes. Not only do we eat a lot more chicken, but 30 years ago, most of us bought our chickens whole. Today, we buy 90 percent as cut-up parts.

Each extra processing step means human hands are at work on the line: cutting, pulling, deboning, skinning, and then coating, frying, freezing, and packaging. It’s not a simple task to take a live chicken, and turn it into Perdue Fun Shapes Chicken Breast Nuggets or Pilgrim’s Honey-Dipt Chicken Strips. As demand for these products grows, the pressure on workers grows too.

Industrialized poultry plants operate around the clock to process more than 32 million chickens each weekday (8.5 billion chickens in 2013). John D. Simmons/The Charlotte Observer

One bird every two seconds: The terrible urgency to keep up

In the drive to keep up productivity, the industry leans on the workers to go ever faster.

The maximum speed at which poultry companies can run their processing lines has doubled in the last 35 years, and the poultry industry has been pushing to make the maximum speed even higher. Faster line speed means higher production, and higher profits. But the pace places a greater strain on workers.

On the line itself, depending on the job, many workers say they have to process around 35 to 45 birds per minute. This means performing the same task on about one chicken every two seconds: more than 2,000 chickens per hour, more than 14,000 chickens per day. A conservative estimate is that the average worker repeats forceful motions—cutting, pulling, slicing—over 20,000 times per day.

From Farms to Factories

As chicken has become big business, all aspects of the industry have been consolidated and enlarged. Thousands of small farms have been absorbed into huge operations.






Per Farm


See the change

Sources for From Farms to Factories:
1950 USDA Census of Agriculture
2012 USDA Census of Agriculture


The top four control more than half the market

A handful of companies have come to dominate both the poultry market and its supply chain. Today, the top four—Tyson Foods, Pilgrim’s, Perdue, and Sanderson Farms—control roughly 60 percent of the market. They set the pace for the rest of the industry, including workforce practices.

The top four poultry companies in the US: Tyson Foods, Pilgrim's, Perdue, and Sanderson Farms. Oliver Gottfried/Oxfam America

Market domination: The illusion of choice

If you buy chicken almost anywhere in the US--in a grocery store, restaurant, or school cafeteria—you are almost certainly buying from one of these companies.

The top four companies produce hundreds of different products, and market under at least 30 different brand names. Perdue sells 213 poultry products under their Perdue brand. Tyson sells 97 products under their Tyson brand (and many more under other brands), Pilgrim’s sells 54, and Sanderson Farms sells 49 different products.

Sacrificing safety and health

A workers' advocate talks about how large companies can set industry standards.

Watch Video

Who’s behind your chicken?

The top four companies produce hundreds of different chicken items and market them under many brand names. If you buy chicken, you’re probably buying from one of these four.

Select a brand to find out who's behind your favorite chicken product.

Speak up now

In the past 60 years, Big Poultry has become an industrial powerhouse dominated by a handful of companies. The chicken factory of today has one urgent imperative: to take all the live birds that are delivered at the entrance, and process them into chicken products that ship out the exit.

Workers are part of this complex machine, and the industry puts pressure on them to work as cheaply, quickly, and quietly as possible.

Companies care what you think

Big Poultry will listen to you, because you buy what they sell.

Take action


The Line

Cold, wet, fast, relentless: Dangers at every turn

Work on the line is tough—and the industry doesn't make it any easier for the workers.

In fact, Big Poultry treats workers as replaceable cogs in its industrial machine.

Poultry plants today are large, concrete buildings, surrounded by tall fences and protected by guards.

The air around most plants smells like chicken feces and fried chicken. But inside is even worse.

A cruel machine that never stops running

The world inside a poultry plant is not only harsh, but unhealthy. Conditions pose constant dangers to the women and men who work there.

Imagine you are a line worker…

You arrive for your shift dressed in bulky clothes. In most plants, the temperature hovers around 40 degrees F. This reduces microbial growth on the chicken carcasses—and it chills workers like you to the bone. The US government's Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) notes that cold temperatures exacerbate the harmful effects of repetitive motions. You note that it causes your hands to stiffen and makes handling your tools harder.

The plant is full of liquids. The birds produce blood, offal, and grease. Cleaning involves water, chlorine, detergent. Sometimes you spend hours on the line standing in a pool of blood.

Your supervisor is under pressure to meet his daily production quota, so the line rarely stops or slows down.

Each job on the line focuses on one small task, one single part of the bird: wing, leg, breast. So you repeat the same motion tens of thousands of times each shift. You wish you could rotate to different jobs on the line—to rest your muscles, learn new skills, and alleviate monotony. Workers tell you that the company often denies these requests.

“Is it worth my health, losing a limb, losing my arms for some little bit of money?”

Meet Pedro

The processing line is a relentless force in the plant. Each worker stands in place and does the same motion tens of thousands of times each shift. Earl Dotter/Oxfam America

Pushed to the limit—and beyond

Almost all workers report that it's nearly impossible to take a break. They have to ask their line supervisor to use the bathroom. The supervisor must in turn find someone to fill that spot. Workers say there are seldom enough of these replacement workers available so they often have to wait an hour or more. Nearly everyone has stories of workers peeing on the line. Still others make the choice to wear diapers to work. Others report that they stop drinking water and become dehydrated.

Dolores, who worked at a Simmons plant in Arkansas, said she was denied permission to use the bathroom "many, many times." Her supervisor mocked workers' requests. "He said, 'Ah, but why? I told you... that you shouldn't drink so much water and eat so much food so that you don't need to ask to use the bathroom." She began wearing a sanitary napkin, but since it would fill up with urine too quickly, she resorted to diapers: "I had to wear Pampers. Myself and many, many others had to wear Pampers." She said she felt like she had "no worth, no right to repeal or to speak up." She decided just to endure the situation. "It made me feel ashamed."


Door to door: From live bird to chicken nuggets

Every day, more than 30 million chickens are trucked to poultry plants across the US.

The birds enter the plant alive and squawking. They leave in packages: as boneless, skinless chicken breasts or frozen nuggets or bags of wings.

What happens from entrance to exit involves a lot of work, both automated steps and manual labor. Each step in the process requires a specific job. One person cuts off wings, another pulls off the skin and removes the "tenders," while yet another breads and fries chicken nuggets.

Chicken: More than the sum of its parts

Wings, breasts, drumettes, thighs. How many people are needed to process a single chicken?

Find out

Speak up now

These jobs are difficult and demanding. Workers who are willing to take on the conditions and the challenges should be rewarded with fair compensation and treated with respect and dignity. Instead, the industry treats these workers as disposable, and replaces them as quickly as necessary.

Your voice can improve lives on the line

Speak up with poultry workers now.

Take action


A Climate of Fear

Big Poultry takes advantage of workers

Working on the line is exhausting, but workers earn little money or respect for their efforts.

The industry treats them as disposable. When workers are injured or disabled, Big Poultry lets them go and brings in new recruits.

There are three major problems that Big Poultry must address:

  • Threats to workers' health and safety;
  • Exploitation of vulnerable workers;
  • Poverty wages in a booming industry.

Big Poultry puts lives on the line every day

Imagine going to work each day knowing you may not be allowed to go to the bathroom for many hours during your shift. You debate wearing an adult diaper because of that. You are likely among the 86 percent of workers who suffer hand and wrist pain because of repeating the same motions 20,000 times each shift. You face another day of the same. Should your pain become chronic, you risk permanent damage to your hands and arms. Company nurses dismiss your concerns, sending you back to work. Still, the pressure to keep up with the speed of the line is unrelenting. And the check at the end of the week barely sustains you and your family.


Ask a poultry worker about what happens on the line, and they usually start pointing to places on their body: scars from surgery; marks from cuts, claws, or bites; swollen hands and wrists.

Working on the line is working through pain and problems. The US Department of Labor officially classifies poultry as a “hazardous industry” and has calculated that poultry workers are injured five times more than other workers.

The industry compounds the danger: increasing line speeds, failing to provide rest breaks, providing inadequate medical care to injured workers, underreporting incidents of injury and illness, and denying responsibility for workers who become injured or disabled.

"The meat and poultry industry still has one of the highest rates of injury and illness of any industry."

The US Government Accountability Office

Epidemic of repetitive strain injuries

Standing in one spot, a line worker makes the same cutting, pulling, and hanging motions tens of thousands of time each day. Among the most common problems from repetitive strain:

  • pain in hands, swelling, numbness, loss of grip;
  • carpal tunnel syndrome and tendinitis;
  • "claw hand" (injured fingers lock in a curled position);
  • ganglionic cysts (fluid deposits under the skin);
  • trigger finger (a finger gets stuck in a bent position, and straightens with a snap—like a trigger being pulled and released).

Many jobs involve not just repetition, but force: workers need to pull, hack, and twist forcefully. And when tools are not sharp enough, the work requires even more force.

After less than a year working in poultry, Karina Zorita was unable to use her hands for a hug, straighten her fingers, or grab a spoon. John D. Simmons/The Charlotte Observer

Carpal tunnel syndrome is rampant in the poultry industry. Poultry workers suffer it at seven times the rate of other workers. It is not a case of short-term discomfort; as it presents in poultry workers, carpal tunnel syndrome can be a permanent and disabling condition. It often requires surgery and—if not properly treated—can prevent those affected from working. Without the normal use of their hands, these workers are unable to continue earning money to support themselves and their families.

Many workers say that when they ask to be transferred to a different position on the line, in order to let their muscles rest, supervisors often deny their requests. "Workers have no control over the speed. They can't stop to rest or take breaks when they want," says Dan Habes, an ergonomics expert at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. "Those are all principles of ergonomics: When you're hurting, you should be able to stop and take a break."

Life Interrupted

How does work on the line affect workers' health and lives?

Watch Video

Greater speed, more risk

Workers surveyed over the last several years report that the line speed is an enormous part of the reason that workers get injured. The faster the line moves, the more chickens, more motions, and more pressure on muscles and nerves. In a survey of 302 workers in Alabama, Southern Poverty Law Center found that “78 percent of workers surveyed said that the line speed makes them feel less safe, makes their work more painful and causes more injuries.”

Poultry workers suffer amputations at three times the rate for all workers—higher than even high-risk occupations like mining. John D. Simmons/The Charlotte Observer

Other risks

Cuts and lacerations: Many workers tell stories of losing the tips of fingers or whole fingers, or of stabbing themselves in the hand, arm, or leg.

Slips, trips, falls: Workers, who often wear heavy rubber boots as part of their protective gear, find it difficult to step on and off work platforms in wet and humid conditions.

Respiratory hazards: Because of chemicals, dust, and animal waste, poultry workers suffer an array of respiratory problems, from asthma to nausea.

Exposure to dangerous chemicals: Poultry workers are exposed to an array of toxins on the line.

Depression: Workers commonly develop depression and anxiety. Among the factors that cause this are social isolation and low social support, abusive supervision, poor compensation and living conditions, hazardous conditions, and job insecurity.

One study found that poultry workers from Perdue and other companies in North Carolina suffered depressive symptoms at a rate 80 percent higher than non-poultry workers.

Bacilio's injury

"Suddenly the knife went through my hand."

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Written on the Body

Stepping into a spot on the line puts nearly every part of your body at risk. From head to toe, you're surrounded by sharp tools, harsh chemicals, and constant demands to speed up and keep going.

This is violating the laws of human decency.

Bob Whitmore U.S. Labor Department

Poultry plants are filled with hazards … Production lines where workers stand shoulder-to-shoulder wielding blades for hours with few breaks.

Temperatures hover near freezing to prevent the spread of bacteria. Water drips off machinery, falling onto floors slick with chicken fat.

Charlotte Observer | February 10, 2008


Pain and Swelling

86% of poultry workers in one survey said they suffered hand and wrist pain, swelling, numbness, inability to close hands.

“Once I shake their hands, I know what they do.”

Dr. Pablo Forrestier, Monroe Community Clinic, Monroe, NC

In less than a year in a chicken plant pulling bones out of breasts and thighs, Karina Zorita lost the ability to straighten her fingers or use her hands' grip to grab a glass or hug a … child. “My children are still small. They still need me. … My hands don't work anymore.”

Charlotte Observer, Feb 10, 2008

Sources: Tom Fritzsche, Unsafe at These Speeds: Alabama’s Poultry Industry and Its Disposable Workers (2013) | The Charlotte Observer, Feb 10, 2008

Repetitive Motion

Performing the same forceful cutting, hanging, pulling, or trimming motion more than 20,000 times a day can lead to musculoskeletal disorders in poultry workers’ hands, arms, and shoulders. Most surveys reveal that a vast majority of workers experience pain, swelling in the joints, limited range of motion, numbness or tingling sensations, and loss of strength.

"The pain I felt, the back pain, the pain in my hand was a sharp pain and hurt with any movements; when I would kneel, when I would bend over, when I twisted from side to side. In reference to my hand, it hurt as soon as I started hanging and moved my hand … after I was diagnosed with carpal tunnel my body started to get stiff. My arms became stiff, my feet very stiff, my legs, and my neck very stiff."

Roberto, former poultry plant worker

Sources: Kerry Hall, Ames Alexander, and Franco Ordoñez, “The Cruelest Cuts,” The Charlotte Observer, September 30, 2008. | Tom Fritzsche, Unsafe at These Speeds: Alabama’s Poultry Industry and Its Disposable Workers (2013).

Carpal Tunnel syndrome

Repetition, force, awkward and static postures lead to musculoskeletal disorders such as carpal tunnel syndrome. Poultry workers develop Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (CTS) at 7 times the average.

“America's growing demand for specialty cuts presents an ergonomic nightmare for workers.”

Charlotte Observer, Feb 10, 2008

Sources: OSHA, Prevention of Musculoskeletal Injuries in Poultry Processing

Respiratory problems

Ammonia leaks are not uncommon in poultry plants, and often send workers to the hospital. Exposure to ammonia can result in severe burns to the eyes, skin, throat or lungs. In extreme cases, these burns can be serious enough to cause blindness, lung disease, and even death.

"On August 31st 2013 … I was working in packing; there was an ammonia leak. Since then I have breathing problems … my chest tightens suddenly and … it is hard to breathe."

Rosa, former Tyson poultry plant worker

Sources: Public Health Statement for Ammonia, Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry, September 2004

Slips and Falls

Slips and falls are common, as the floors in poultry plants are usually coated with water, blood, or poultry fat and grease. Some people report working while standing in a pool of blood.

“Everything was wet—drenched in water, fat, blood and offal—dripping down gutters and gushing down drains. The smell of flesh, although not fetid, was raw and gamy.”

Jesse Katz, LA Times

Sources: Sources: Midwest Coalition for Human Rights, “Always Working Beyond the Capacity of Our Bodies: Meat and Poultry Processing Work Conditions and Human Rights in the Midwest,” University of Minnesota Human Rights Program in the Institute of Global Studies, October 2012. | Jesse Katz, LA Times,

Antibiotic resistance

In the process of handling the flesh of thousands of birds each day, poultry workers absorb enough antibiotics that they develop resistance to them.

In one study, poultry workers had 32 times greater odds of being colonized with antibiotic-resistant E. coli than other members of the community. Health experts have reported instances of these workers developing staph infections that are potentially fatal, as they are resistant to treatment.

Sources: Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Dec, 17, 2007.

Cuts and Amputations

In 2013, poultry workers suffered amputations at 3 times the average for all workers, a higher rate than even in high risk occupations like manufacturing and mining.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Inadequate training

Many companies provide scant training for workers on health, safety, or proper technique. What instruction workers receive is sometimes offered in a language that cannot be understood by all trainees.* They are then put to work almost immediately. New hires must often assume their position on the line and, while rushing to keep up, watch what other more experienced workers are doing. New workers frequently end up holding or using their tools incorrectly, which can lead to injuries.

*Tyson maintains that they conduct safety training in multiple languages. Oxfam was unable to verify this claim with workers, and the information is not public.

“I stopped being afraid… I became more aware about my rights.”

Meet Isabella

Denial of care and compensation

Workers frequently need medical attention, in and out of the plant. Yet workers say they’re often afraid to speak up when they’re injured or ill. They worry about being disciplined or fired. Those without documentation fear deportation.

Supervisors often respond negatively when a worker reports pain or injury, and requests a break to visit the medical office. Many workers say supervisors go so far as to make fun of them for complaining about pain.

“I … want them to value the workers, … not only the animals.”

Meet Roberto

While washing a grinding machine at a plant in North Carolina, Guillermo Santiago had the tips of three fingers sliced off. John D. Simmons/The Charlotte Observer

Keeping medical treatment to “first aid”

When workers do have the courage to seek medical care, they are usually referred to medical personnel who work for the company. These people can be more interested in protecting the company than the health of the workers.

Plants are concerned about their safety records. They try to minimize medical treatments that would require recording or reporting incidents.

This means keeping medical attention at the level of first aid: ibuprofen for pain, compresses for swelling, cream for sore muscles. If companies can avoid doing more than this, they don’t have to record the incident, or report to the US government’s Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA). This keeps their record clean, but also means they mistreat or misdiagnose serious injuries and illnesses.

When the condition requires attention from a physician, workers report that they are usually referred to doctors who work closely with the company. These doctors may avoid diagnoses that would make the company responsible.

If a worker requests the opportunity to see another doctor or a specialist, the company may discourage or threaten that worker. “If you are injured, yes they will help you,” says Ana, a Perdue worker, “but then they will get rid of you.”

Smoke and mirrors

See how the Big Poultry paints an inaccurate picture of declining injuries

Find out more

Shouldn’t this be illegal?

Why doesn’t the US government do more to protect workers?

Find out more

Disabled workers with no recourse

Cumulative injuries can build to the point that a worker can no longer use her hands, arms, or shoulders. And cannot work—at the poultry plant, or another job. Then what?

All states have workers' compensation programs that offer support and medical care to employees who suffer work-related injuries or illnesses related to work. However, workers often face significant obstacles to accessing benefits. Poultry companies may argue that the workers’ problems are not related to work, but to another activity. In one case, an employer blamed a repetitive strain injury on a car with manual transmission.

Repetitive strain can be difficult to prove. The damage is largely invisible (other than swelling), and only develops over time, rather than as a result of a single traumatic incident.

Claims denied

An attorney explains how poultry companies deny and delay medical care for workers

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“I walk from one place to another looking to see what I can do, and where they will accept me this way. … I don’t have a permanent job, and this generates many problems because I cannot afford an apartment, I cannot pay my bills, I cannot buy food.”

Former poultry worker, Simmons. He had surgery for carpal tunnel syndrome in both hands and is permanently disabled.


Who is willing to do these difficult jobs? Mostly people who are economically desperate and socially isolated—in other words, people who have few choices. Many workers and advocates say that the industry takes advantage of these vulnerable populations by creating a climate of fear.

Many say that the poultry industry employs economically desperate populations (minorities, immigrants, refugees) and takes advantage of their vulnerability. Earl Dotter/Oxfam America

Vulnerable populations

Immigrants: Many poultry workers today are from other countries, including Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Peru, Ecuador, Somalia, Laos, the Marshall Islands, Nepal, China, and Haiti. These workers face many challenges in learning about and understanding their rights.

While plants often employ both English- and Spanish-speakers, they rarely provide translators for speakers of other languages. The language barrier makes it difficult for workers to communicate with each other and to speak out.

Many workers have tenuous immigration status, which makes them especially vulnerable. They fear deportation, which could put families in the US and in their country of origin at risk.

Refugees: In recent years, the poultry industry has been turning to an especially vulnerable population: refugees who come to the US seeking asylum. In a plant in Texas, Pilgrim’s employs refugees from Burma, while other companies employ refugees from Sudan, Iraq, Eritrea, and Somalia. Refugees are apt to be paid even less than other workers because the poultry industry often uses labor contractors to find these refugees; contractors pay wages directly to the workers—usually less than the plant would pay.

Prisoners: In some plants, prisoners serve as another source of labor. The use of prison labor is commonly criticized because people who are incarcerated are often forced to accept a fraction of what other workers are paid. Prisoners frequently receive wages as low as 25 cents an hour. David Fathi, Director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) National Prison Project, says that a real concern about using prisoner labor is “that employers, whether they’re public or private, are naturally going to be attracted by a uniquely docile and powerless, and literally captive labor force.”

“They don't know that they have the right to talk about how they're mistreated at work.”

Meet Albious

Harassment and discrimination

Poultry companies deliberately take advantage of the demographics of the workforce to create a climate of fear in processing plants.

Workers generally have more interaction with their line supervisor than any other personnel in the plant. This person has intimate power over workers on the line; supervisors manage line speed, control bathroom breaks, and access to medical personnel.*

Some workers say their supervisors are fair, but many workers report that the supervisors—under intense pressure to keep up with production—push line workers to excess. There are frequent reports of rough, or even abusive, tactics. Many workers report that their requests for bathroom breaks are denied. Still others report that they are chastised or derided when they bring injuries or illnesses to their supervisor’s attention.

* Tyson says they have policies that prohibit retaliating against workers for any reason and that they employ staff to help injured employees receive proper medical care, however Oxfam’s research shows these policies are not being implemented properly.

Point system: In the effort to control the workforce, many poultry plants use a “point system” to track tardiness, absences, mistakes—even injuries. When the company wants to penalize or dismiss a worker, it can refer to the points, with no other explanation. Supervisors rarely explain or document the system; many workers don’t know how many points they have or how close they are to being fired. So workers live in fear of points, of doing the wrong thing and being fired without warning.

Bathroom breaks: Many workers are afraid to ask for permission to go to the bathroom. The supervisor, who needs to find a replacement worker to fill the spot, may yell, penalize, or threaten firing.

The long waits are especially hard for some workers, including those who are older or pregnant. Some workers take the step of reducing their intake of fluids. Pedro, a former poultry worker for Tyson, simply stopped drinking water: “I figured if I don't drink that much, I won't need to use the bathroom a lot.” He became sufficiently dehydrated that his potassium levels dropped, causing severe leg cramps. Other workers choose to wear diapers to work. Tyson disputes this, claiming their policies require rest breaks (including permission to leave the line to use the restroom).

Fear of losing jobs: Many poultry workers come to the US to support families back home. Their parents and relatives depend on them, and workers report deep pain when they can’t provide that support. Consequently workers are terrified of losing their jobs on the line.

Workers get the message: if they want to keep their jobs, they need to endure what happens inside the plant. Many report that the plant personnel tell them to deal with the conditions, or “There’s the door.”

“I appreciate the financial implications of running a big business. … But I appreciate more that these people are humans.”

Meet Mary

Juanita believes she was fired from a poultry plant in North Carolina after she learned about her rights, and started distributing OSHA cards to workers. Mary Babic/Oxfam America

“Many people have to urinate in their pants because they don’t let us go to the bathroom.”

former poultry worker, Tyson


While the poultry industry is profiting, workers are not. They earn low wages, have scant benefits, and have little, if any, job security. None of the workers interviewed by Oxfam reported receiving any paid time off.

Most poultry workers earn wages that leave them close to the poverty line. Wages average around $11 per hour; annual full-time income is $20,000 to $25,000. The average poultry worker supporting a family of four lives below the poverty line and qualifies for food stamps, Head Start, and the National School Lunch Program. And wages do not keep up with inflation; over the past 30 years, the real value of poultry workers’ wages has declined almost 40 percent.

During this same period, profits have climbed steadily. Poultry executives are enjoying huge leaps in their pay:

  • The CEO and chairman of Sanderson Farms received $5.9 million in compensation in 2014, a nearly 200 percent increase since 2011.
  • The President and CEO of Tyson Foods earned $12.2 million in 2014: 550 times what the average poultry worker makes. Perhaps more stark, in three and a half hours, he earned the annual salary of a line worker.
  • The President and CEO of Pilgrim’s has seen his compensation rise 290 percent to $9.3 million since 2011.

Most plants do not offer substantial raises, even to workers who’ve been there for years. Perdue workers in Maryland reported still earning barely $11 per hour, even after years on the job.

“We need to care about the low-wage workers.”

Meet Spencer

"This is an injustice what they are doing."

Meet Myrna

"While the real value of poultry workers’ wages has dropped to poverty level, compensation for executives has skyrocketed. The CEO of Pilgrim’s earned over $9 million in 2014. In just five hours, he earned the annual salary of a line worker."

Lives on the Line
Oxfam America

Cheating workers bit by bit

Many plants chip away at workers’ pay.

Wage theft: Wage theft is common in the poultry industry. For example, workers are rarely paid for the time they spend preparing for and finishing up after work. In one survey, the Department of Labor found that 100 percent of poultry companies were out of compliance with compensation requirements for “donning and doffing” (putting on and taking off pieces of safety gear) and lunch periods.

In 2010, Pilgrim’s paid over $1 million in back wages to workers at a Dallas plant for overtime and “donning and doffing.” In 2008, Sanderson paid over $2.6 million in back wages to workers they had not paid properly for time they had worked.

In most plants, workers stay on the line until all the chickens are processed. While many work more than 40 hours a week, reports of overtime pay are rare.

Questionable accounting practices: Some companies are now paying workers with debit cards. The cards may force workers to pay a fee (which is illegal), and require workers to go online to find out how much is on the card. Other plants decline to provide workers with paystubs. These practices make it difficult for workers to gather the evidence they would need to file a wage violation complaint.

Paying for protective equipment: Workers are sometimes required to buy their own safety equipment; Perdue workers at plants in Maryland and Delaware report having to pay for their own boots, gloves, aprons, and goggles. In one study, 96.9 percent of the workers were required to either purchase or pay for replacements. Tyson Foods pledges to provide employees with adequate work-related gear at no cost but they do not specify the quality of the equipment or a replacement policy.

”The pain never stopped”

Meet Jose

Scant benefits

Many workers say they receive health insurance through their employer, however they may be charged $20 to $30 per week for it and it covers only themselves—not their family members.

None of the workers interviewed by Oxfam or others report getting any paid time off. No sick days, personal days, vacation days. Indeed, many workers talk about working through illness, and the problems this poses in the plant. Many women talk about how difficult it is to work while pregnant—especially the stress of no bathroom breaks. And there is no paid maternity leave; many return to work shortly after giving birth.

Gabriela worked at a poultry plant in North Carolina all the way through her pregnancy. “I left work on 5 pm and my child was born at 1 in the morning.” Mary Babic/Oxfam America

Speak up now

Big Poultry treats workers as disposable parts. The industry churns through people, exploiting marginalized and vulnerable populations to do the work.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The industry could treat the workers with respect and care. It could bring benefits to the industry as well as the workers: a more stable, educated workforce committed to safety and best practices.

Workers deserve dignity

Demand safe working conditions for poultry workers.

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You Can Make a Difference

The human cost doesn't have to be this high

You have the power as a consumer to speak out to the giant companies.

Every day, thousands of people head to work in a thriving industry. They process the chicken that lands on our plates in homes, schools, and restaurants. But these people—poultry workers—do not share in the bounty. Instead, they earn poverty-level wages, suffer debilitating injuries, and experience a climate of fear.

It does not have to be this way.

You can speak out to the giant companies: Tell Big Poultry to treat their workers with respect and dignity.

Tell Big Poultry...

Big Poultry can and should implement changes that would quickly improve conditions for these workers.

The top four can lead the way. Tyson Foods, Pilgrim’s, Perdue, and Sanderson Farms together employ over 100,000 poultry processing workers and control almost 60 percent of the market. The entire poultry industry employs practices that exploit their workers, but these four companies, as industry leaders, have the ability to make changes across the entire poultry industry.

Should we all stop eating chicken?

You've heard about the problem. Is giving up chicken the solution?

Yes or no?

What Now?

Now you know more about what goes on behind the walls of those poultry plants.

Poultry workers and others have tried to influence the industry but Big Poultry has failed to make a commitment to workers. So what will it take?

You. Your voice.

Tyson Foods, Pilgrim’s, Perdue, and Sanderson Farms may not listen to workers but they care what you think. Consumers have already pushed Big Poultry to change: Tyson Foods, Pilgrim’s, and Perdue have all recently pledged to phase out the use of antibiotics from their chicken supply chain. People spoke and they listened.

They’ll listen again. Take action now.

Sign the petition

Fear has kept many poultry workers silent. You don’t have to be.

Take action