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Oxfam America calls on top poultry companies to publicly commit to core labor rights, including fair compensation, safer workplace conditions, and greater workforce engagement
Poultry workers in the United States suffer extremely high rates of injury, earn poverty level wages, and work in a climate of fear, Oxfam America said in a new report released today. The report is central to Oxfam’s new nationwide campaign that exposes the human cost of the modern poultry industry and rallies consumers to call on the nation’s largest poultry companies--Tyson Foods, Pilgrim’s, Perdue, and Sanderson Farms--to treat workers with fairness and dignity.
Oxfam’s report, Lives on the Line, examines the hazardous plant conditions that lead to elevated rates of illness and injuries, and exposes industry practices designed to discourage workers from reporting violations and prevent organizing. The report also examines the industry’s complex history of tapping marginalized populations for its workforce. Most of the roughly 250,000 poultry workers are minorities, immigrants, and refugees, and a significant number are women.
“Poultry workers are among the most vulnerable and exploited workers in the United States,” said Ray Offenheiser, President of Oxfam America. “The industry is booming, profits are climbing, but poultry workers remain trapped at the bottom. Oxfam believes the consumer has tremendous power to put pressure on these companies to change their unfair policies and ensure that workers can assert their rights without fear of retribution.”
The report cites dozens of medical studies and government studies that document how the relentless pace of the processing line and more than 20,000 cutting, pulling, and hanging motions per worker per day contribute to painful and crippling musculoskeletal injuries. Poultry workers suffer carpal tunnel syndrome seven times more often than workers in all other industries; they suffer occupational illnesses at five times the rate.
Despite industry claims that injury rates are dropping significantly, plants remain hazardous and fines remain low. As recently as September 22, 2015, OSHA fined $46,825 for preventable safety violations after three employees suffered serious injuries in less than 60 days, one of which included the amputation of a worker’s three fingers. And in 2011 a Perdue plant in Virginia was found to have committed 12 safety violations, including six that OSHA classified as “serious,” such as improperly securing equipment and hazardous chemicals. Despite these violations, the company was only fined $6,000, which was negotiated down to just $4,000.
As Oxfam’s report contends, official government injury statistics likely undercount the true rate of injury by a significant margin. The report cites OSHA, the GAO, and others that have found extensive evidence of many plants deliberately underreporting injuries.
"The integrity of America’s food supply is only as strong as each of the links in the food supply chain,” said Dan Glickman, former Secretary of the United States Department of Agriculture. “Alongside our abundant, safe and reasonably priced food, we need to ensure our food is produced under fair and safe working conditions. Oxfam America’s report makes practical recommendations for improving the conditions for thousands of workers in America’s poultry industry."
Tyson Foods, Pilgrim’s, Perdue, and Sanderson Farms control 60 percent of the poultry market and supply most of the major retail and food service outlets in America. According to the report, compensation for executives and company profits are soaring. In the last four years, compensation for the CEO and Chairman of Sanderson Farms rose 200 percent to $5.9 million, and the stock price of Tyson increased 82 percent in one year. Meanwhile the value of wages for poultry workers has declined almost 40 percent since the 1980’s.
Four days before the launch of Oxfam’s campaign—and after several meetings with Oxfam discussing the goals of the campaign— that it will increase hourly pay for one-third of its workforce, about 34,000 employees. According to Tyson, the company recognizes that starting pay of $8-9 an hour is insufficient to meet its stated goals of improving employee recruitment and retention. While increased compensation is a positive step, Oxfam urges Tyson to do more to ensure worker safety and well-being, including compensation, and Pilgrim’s, Perdue, and Sanderson Farms should take notice and follow suit.
Oxfam America’s report offers detailed recommendations for companies to change the way the industry treats its workers, including:
- Healthy and Safe Workplace: Provide a healthy and safe environment in plants, which includes reasonable line speeds, adequate staffing to allow for rest and bathroom breaks, and proper medical care for injured workers
- Worker Voice and Empowerment: Allow workers to have a greater voice in the workplace, ensure they understand their rights, and provide an atmosphere of tolerance to act on those rights.
- Fair Compensation: Pay workers a fair wage that enables them to support their families without relying on federal assistance or charity. Provide paid time off, especially earned sick time.
In addition, the report calls for the federal government to provide greater oversight of the industry.
While Tyson and Perdue have policies in place that address concerns raised by Oxfam’s report, research by Oxfam and many other organizations has shown that the implementation of those policies is falling short and the companies are failing to live up to their own standards. Other companies, such as Pilgrim’s and Sanderson Farms, have no publicly-stated policies concerning working conditions or their workforce. Oxfam reached out to all four companies ahead of the report release and Tyson sent Oxfam an official response which can be found here.
Ultimately, Oxfam believes consumers have the power to push for the fair and ethical treatment of poultry workers, just as they have successfully pushed for a reduction in the use of antibiotics in chicken and an increase in cage-free hens. This national campaign will use extensive public awareness activities to mobilize consumers to sign a petition and influence these top four companies. The campaign will expose consumers to the reality of life on the poultry processing line through an immersive multimedia website that includes interviews with workers and footage from the processing plants.
“There is a growing community of consumers who are paying attention to where their food is coming from, not only about food safety and the inhumane treatment of animals, but about the people who harvest and process our food, too,” said Minor Sinclair, Director of Oxfam America’s US Program. “Tyson's announcement last week to raise the wages for 34,000 poultry workers is a positive step in the compensation of their workforce. But for Tyson as well as Pilgrim's, Sanderson Farms and Perdue, more needs to be done to overcome poverty wages throughout the industry, unsafe working conditions, and little or no voice on the job. The momentum for change will continue to build as growing numbers of consumers stay committed to see real change for those who prepare our food."
About the coalition
Oxfam America has been working with a number of organizations devoted to improving conditions for poultry workers across the US.
- Center for Progressive Reform
- Coalition of Black Trade Unionists
- Greater Minnesota Worker Center
- Interfaith Worker Justice
- National Council of La Raza
- Nebraska Appleseed
- Northwest Arkansas Workers’ Justice Center
- Southern Poverty Law Center
- United Food and Commercial Workers
- Western North Carolina Workers’ Center
“As soon as the first shift leaves, around six o’clock, that’s when it speeds up and starts to get hard. You can’t stand the pain on your shoulders, your hands, because of that repetitive movement.”
-Poultry Worker, North Carolina (p. 12)
“I shook very badly and rapidly and my hands felt numb, and my wrists really hurt when I was hanging, even with the pain medicine.”
-Poultry Worker, Arkansas (p. 23)
“I would go to see the nurse almost every day. She would give me pills … and send me back to the line. But the pain never stopped.”
-Poultry Worker, Alabama (Lives on the Line website)
“If you’re injured, they will help you, yes. But then they will get rid of you.”
-Poultry Worker, Maryland (p.28)
“He told us ‘you shouldn’t drink so much water and eat so much food so that you don’t need to ask to use the bathroom.’ I had to wear Pampers. I and many, many others had to wear Pampers.”
-Poultry Worker, Arkansans (p.36)
“I used to tell them that I needed to see a specialist, but they refused me. And I asked... can I go down to see my own orthopedist? And they said, ‘If you do that, we’re going to fire you.’
-Poultry Worker, North Carolina (p.28)
“We get no sick pay, so we cannot call in sick... I would come down here with a fever or runny nose, I would tell the supervisor, ‘Look, I have a runny nose. I would like to go to be excused to the bathroom,’ and they say no.”
-Poultry Worker, North Carolina (p.21)
EDITOR’S NOTE: Lives on the Line is the culmination of two years of research and interviews with current and former poultry workers, workers advocates, attorneys, and medical experts. The report cites more than 200 pieces of work on the industry, including research conducted by The US Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and US Government Accountability Office (GAO).