Labor groups fight poor conditions in poultry industry

Des Moines, Iowa, Dec. 18 — Labor groups are fighting for safer conditions for poultry workers and against proposed measures to increase production speeds at processing plants.

The poultry industry is booming with record profits, a market dominated by corporations such as Tyson Foods, Pilgrim’s, Perdue and Sanderson Farms. These corporations jointly control roughly 60 percent of the domestic chicken market. Still unable to satisfy their greedy appetite for profit, the owners are forcing their workers to pay with their health and sense of human dignity.

At the behest of poultry industry owners, the National Chicken Council on Sept. 1 announced it was petitioning the U.S. Department of Agriculture to increase the speed limits allowed on production lines, despite the current speed already being hazardous to workers’ health. To make matters worse, industry lobbyists are also pushing for the USDA and Congress to completely eliminate federal limits on production speed.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports that poultry workers are twice as likely to suffer injuries on the job as other workers in the U.S., due to the nature of their work. The United Food and Commercial Workers union says that “forcing poultry workers and federal meat inspectors to work significantly faster will increase the odds they’re injured and make chicken less safe for every consumer to eat.”

Workers such as Rosa Rivas, a former employee of a Tyson Foods plant in Springdale, Ark., have spoken out against the wretched conditions they endure. After working at the plant for over a decade, Rivas said, “My experience was the lines are going pretty fast, and people struggle to work as fast as they ask us to work.”

The speed of the processing lines at the plant damaged Rivas’ hands. “Yes, my fingers still hurt from that and sometimes my fingers still cramp up because of how fast we were made to work on the lines.” (KNWA, Northwest Arkansas News)

Last year, Oxfam published a shocking report entitled “No Relief,” revealing how nonunion poultry workers “earn low wages, suffer elevating rates of injury and illness, toil in difficult conditions and have little voice in the workplace.” The report details how workers are denied adequate bathroom breaks, forcing many to wear diapers under their uniforms while working the production line.

“Routinely, poultry workers say, they are denied breaks to use the bathroom. Supervisors mock their needs and ignore their requests; they threaten punishment or firing. Workers wait inordinately long times [an hour or more], then race to accomplish the task within a certain timeframe [e.g., 10 minutes] or risk discipline,” said the Oxfam report.  

A recent report by the GAO also vindicates the Oxfam findings and the concerns raised by workers for several years. “When asked by GAO, workers in five selected states cited bathroom access as a concern and said they fear speaking up at work, where OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] inspectors typically interview them.”

Labor groups such as Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ) are responding to the GAO report, raising public awareness of the dangers in the poultry and meatpacking industries and fighting for the rights of workers.  

The IWJ mission statement describes the group as “a national network that builds collective power by advancing the rights of workers” though the labor movement and “engaging diverse faith communities and allies in joint action.” A delegation representing IWJ delivered a letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and Undersecretary Carmen Rottenberg on Dec. 12, urging them to ignore the demands of the NCC and the owners they represent.

The National Employment Law Project (NELP) has joined IWJ in a joint campaign to address these concerns. The NELP senior fellow for worker safety and health, Debbie Berkowitz, responded to the GAO report by stating, “The report confirms that the meat and poultry industry, in its quest to keep production lines running at any and all costs, is not only cutting the corners on worker safety but further dehumanizing them by denying them legally required bathroom breaks.”

Dangers in poultry plants and the meatpacking industry are nothing new. The American public first got a sordid glimpse of such horrific working conditions in the muckraking novel “The Jungle” (1906) by socialist author and journalist Upton Sinclair. Focusing on the state of “Packingtown,” a name given to Chicago’s stockyards, Sinclair demonstrated the degradation and unsanitary conditions confronting workers, who were risking their lives due to their bosses’ pursuit of profit.

Published over a century ago, “The Jungle” raised a public outcry for change. Reforms were passed through local and federal legislation, but that was not enough to secure the livelihood of workers in the poultry and meatpacking industries. With the billionaire class represented by a reactionary Congress and the administration of President Donald Trump, they are conspiring to turn back the hands of time to repeal gains made by the working class and strangle the labor movement.

Workers cannot rely on elected officials or capitalist slave drivers to improve their situation. Only a strong, unrelenting, working-class movement will be able to achieve such a goal.

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