High demand for poultry leads to wretched factory conditions, Oxfam reports
Image courtesy of Oxfam America
Oxfam America has just released a massive report detailing the sordid employment conditions of line workers in the poultry industry.
The organization, which operates internationally to fight against poverty and the injustices that arise from it, interviewed hundreds of line workers to compile its report, with many employees offering testimonials about what it’s like to work for one of the four biggest poultry processors in the country: Tyson, Pilgrim’s Pride, Perdue and Sanderson Farms.
As you might imagine, poultry is a massive business in the United States, and according to Oxfam’s report, Lives On The Line, plants across the country work 24/7 to prepare 8.5 billion chickens each year for consumers. And since chickens don’t skin, cut, debone or fry themselves, that means thousands of workers are processing up to 45 birds each minute for hours on end.
And based on the information presented in Lives On The Line, those hours are spent in a kind of conveyor belt hell you’d more closely associate with working conditions at the onset of the Industrial Revolution. Here are some of the most stomach-churning insights from the report:
- Plants are often “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.”
- To minimize microbial growth on the chicken carcasses plants are kept around 40 degrees. Workers must wear heavy clothes under their sanitary and safety gear to keep them warm, but the low temperatures “exacerbate the harmful effects of repetitive motions.” Oxfam estimates that one poultry line worker repeats the same forceful motions more than 20,000 times per day on more than 14,000 chickens in that timeframe.
- The need to process thousands of chickens each hour often precludes bathroom breaks, despite the fact that they are legally mandated. Many workers report having to wait long periods of time after break requests before they are actually able to go—but some don’t get breaks at all. One woman told Oxfam, “I had to wear Pampers. Myself and many, many others had to wear Pampers.”
- The U.S. Department of Labor classifies poultry as a “hazardous industry” and the U.S. Government Accountability Office says it has one of the highest rates of injury and illness of any industry. Oxfam reports that 86 percent of works suffer hand and wrist pain, with especially high occurrence of carpal tunnel, ganglionic cysts, “claw hand” (which freezes fingers in a locked, curled position) and trigger finger. They also suffer a high rate of amputations from factory equipment, and are at high risk for respiratory problems due to excessive chemicals, dust and animal waste in the air.
- Workers who suffer from disability often get little or no financial recourse, because poultry lines often employ “vulnerable populations” like refugees and immigrants who may not understand their employment rights or stay quiet out of fear they will lose one of the limited jobs available to them.
This is all terrible, sad news. In compiling their report, Oxfam reached out to the Big Poultry Big Four to ask about the inhumane working conditions in some of their facilities. The only one to answer in any sort of meaningful way was Tyson, with the company’s senior director of public relations saying in an email response to the document, “We're concerned about these anonymous claims, and while we currently have no evidence they're true, we are checking to make sure our position on restroom breaks is being followed and our Team Members' needs are being met.”
Oxfam is urging consumers to put the pressure on those major producers like Sanderson Farms and Tyson to clean up their acts. Since they control 60 percent of the poultry volume in the United States, if they set an example it’s much more likely that other enterprises will follow. The organization points out that the same kind of pressure has forced those companies to phase out antibiotic use in their chicken supplies, and it’s hoping that the same kind of effect can be brought about to improve human rights on production lines.
Lives On The Line contains vital information for consumers so they can take action and demand more from this country’s biggest businesses. But we are also very sorry, and hope you will now enjoy this short slow motion video of a French bulldog taking a tumble while running on a sandy beach. Now get out there and write a letter to people who run Big Poultry so you can help make a change—after you watch the dog.