4 Things We Learned About Working In A Poultry Plant

Image courtesy of Chris Goldberg

For years, reports have surface related to the mistreatment of chickens — and other animals — that are destined for our dinner tables. What we hear about less frequently are the working conditions for those employed by the nation’s biggest poultry producers.

A new report [PDF] from Oxfam America outlines the difficult conditions that many workers claim to have experienced while working for the likes of Tyson Foods Inc., Pilgrim’s Pride Corp., Perdue Farms Inc., and Sanderson Farms Inc.

The report, part of Oxfam’s campaign to advocate for improved conditions of poultry workers, is based on research conducted from 2013 to 2016 by traveling around the country to review documents and conduct interview with former and currently workers, lawyers, medical experts, and others.

While the report covers a litany of issues the employees say they face, here are four takeaways from Oxfam’s look at the poultry processing industry’s treatment of its workers.

1.) Ignored and Mocked – Everyone has to go. But, according to poultry plant employees, they often aren’t allowed to.

Oxfam reports that employees say they are often mocked or ignored by supervisors when they ask to go to the bathroom.

“Supervisors deny requests to use the bathroom because they are under pressure to maintain the speed of the processing line, and to keep up production,” the report states. “Once a poultry plant roars to a start at the beginning of the day, it doesn’t stop until all the chickens are processed. Workers are reduced to pieces of the machine, little more than the body parts that hang, cut, trim, and load—rapidly and relentlessly.”

Workers say that supervisors sometimes taunt or threaten them for their need to use the restroom.

“Go to the bathroom, and from there, go to Human Resources,” one employee recalls being told.

2.) Wait In Line Or Wear Diapers – Employees say they are given few options when it comes to being denied bathroom breaks.

In one survey of 266 workers in Alabama conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center, nearly 80% said they are not allowed to take bathroom breaks when needed.

As a result, employees “restrict intake of liquids and fluids to dangerous degrees; they endure pain and discomfort while they worry about their health and job security,” the report said.

Employees, who say that when they are allowed to use the restroom must wait in lines that last an hour, report resorting to diapers.

In one case, Oxfam says an employee made such a decision to avoid having to leave their line or interact with supervisors. Other times, the report found that employees have simply relieved themselves while working on the line.

“Too many workers tell stories about urinating on themselves, or witnessing coworkers urinating on themselves,” the report states.

3.) Worse For Women – While the conditions are no doubt awful for men working at the poultry plants, the report suggests women face even more issues.

“They face biological realities such as menstruation, pregnancy, and higher vulnerability to infections; and they struggle to maintain their dignity and privacy when requesting breaks,” the report states.

Amy, a worker in Arkansas, says that “when I was pregnant, I had to constantly go to the bathroom, and a male supervisor told me ‘why don’t women hold it like I have to hold it all day?’ I felt there was a factor of discrimination taking place.”

When it comes to women’s monthly cycles, employees say they have been berated by supervisors when they needed to use the restroom.

“The supervisor gets mad at us because we take longer, but we are women, and our needs are greater than those of men,” another worker says. “They don’t consider that we have more gear to remove, or the fact that the bathrooms are too far away; just walking towards them our time is up. When we have our [menstrual] cycle, we need to go more often to the bathroom, but they don’t let us, they don’t like it.”

4.) Few Policies – According to Oxfam, Tyson Foods is the only company to have a publicly stated policy on bathroom breaks.

“The company states that workers are able to use the bathroom whenever they need to; the “Team Member Bill of Rights” specifies that employees receive “adequate room for meal and rest breaks” and “reasonable time for necessary restroom breaks during shift production time,” the report states.

Oxfam reached out to all four of the processing plants, but Tyson and Perdue were the only companies to reply.

Both noted they care about employees and find the claims troubling.

“By its nature, it is demanding and exhausting work. But it does not have to be dehumanizing, and it does not have to rob people of their dignity and health,” the report states.

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