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For several years, Oxfam and a coalition of allies and experts have been exposing the dark underbelly of labor conditions in the poultry industry.
Oxfam’s concerns were recently confirmed by the GAO, after it conducted direct interviews with poultry processing workers in five states. The central underlying problem is the pervasive climate of fear inside poultry plants; when workers are afraid to report issues, OSHA and other inspection agencies are unable to detect or investigate problems.
Eighteen months after the GAO issued a report confirming that poultry workers face inordinate health and safety hazards and that many of these problems go under-reported, a follow-up investigation calls on all three federal agencies-- the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture-- to improve ways for workers to communicate issues without fear of retaliation.
“The health and safety problems that workers face in poultry processing plants have been exacerbated in the past year due to a growing climate of fear and oppression in an industry where workers are mostly immigrants, refugees, and people of color,” said Alex Galimberti, Senior Advocacy and Collaborations Advisor for Oxfam America. “Every day, workers experience problems, such as denial of treatment for repetitive motion injuries, lack of access to bathroom breaks, and sexual harassment. Most of the time, they feel unsafe reporting these issues to federal agencies or to top level management.”
Oxfam continues to call on the nation’s top poultry producers to lead the way in addressing these issues and creating systems for workers to safely report violations.
The findings from the GAO investigation are similar to those in reports from Oxfam’s two key reports, Lives on the Line and No Relief. In particular, the GAO confirmed that workers are routinely denied access to bathroom breaks, and that workers suffer health problems as a result (sometimes quite grave and potentially life-threatening). Other findings:
- Poultry processing plants are not properly reporting injuries, and are denying treatment to workers;
- Workers are exposed to dangerous chemicals without receiving proper information and training on their toxicity;
- Fear of retaliation creates barriers for workers to speak out during regular plant inspections by agents from OSHA and USDA.
This GAO report comes as the National Chicken Council has called for waiving the maximum line speed in poultry plants. A potential increase in processing line speeds will only worsen already dangerous working conditions. Oxfam believes the most sustainable way to meet growing consumer demand for poultry is for industry leaders to invest in worker safety and in creating stable, decent paying jobs.