It’s Time to Talk About Poultry Worker Welfare

After years of focusing on the birds, we need to pay attention to people tasked with slaughtering them.
(Photo: Getty Images)
May 12, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Much attention has been paid to the suffering of chickens raised by the conventional poultry industry—but what about the miseries endured by the legions of poultry workers who toil to process the birds into all the cheap chicken nuggets and boneless breasts Americans love to eat?

Last year, Oxfam America documented the poverty-level pay, wage theft, and elevated rates of injury that America’s largely nonunionized poultry workers endure working for industry leaders like Tyson, Pilgrim’s, and Perdue. Now, in a scathing report released Wednesday, the nonprofit is targeting one outrageous aspect of the job: what appears to be a rampant practice in the industry of denying line workers regular breaks to use the bathroom.

Of the scores of current and former poultry workers Oxfam interviewed for its report, only a handful said that their bathroom needs were respected in the workplace, and these were mostly workers at union plants. Far more common were those workers who reported that their requests to use the bathroom were routinely ignored or that they were made to wait up to an hour or longer, that they were subject to harassment and disciplinary action for asking to use the bathroom or for taking too long, and that they were threatened with deportation or firing. According to one worker’s account, supervisors on his line regularly told workers: “Go to the bathroom, and from there, go to Human Resources.”

Related: Workers Say Turkey Processing Jobs Are Thankless

More shocking still is how these degraded workers are forced to cope. As the report states, “Workers urinate and defecate while standing on the line; they wear diapers to work; they restrict intake of liquids and fluids to a dangerous degree; they endure pain and discomfort while they worry about their health and job security. And they are in danger of serious health problems.” Such problems include elevated risk for urinary tract and kidney infections, which can cause serious complications, particularly for pregnant women and their unborn babies.

“I’m eight months pregnant, and they’re still treating me the same,” one worker told Oxfam. “I keep doing the same work, with the same effort. I try not to drink too much water, so I don’t have to go. When I ask permission, I have to wait 15 minutes, half an hour, sometimes more.… I hope I don’t have problems with my baby. I have only a month more to go. I’ve had an infection in my urinary tract. It’s been much more difficult being pregnant.”

Even when workers are given bathroom breaks, they often are not given enough time. A five- or 10-minute break doesn’t account for how long it might take a worker to reach the bathroom, especially racing across floors that are often slick with blood, fat, and chicken guts—let alone to remove the required protective gear and put it back on. In some plants, a 10-minute break might leave a worker just one minute to do what he or she came to the bathroom to do in the first place.

To what do we owe this shameful mistreatment? As with so many of the social, environmental, and animal welfare problems that plague the conventional chicken industry, it all boils down to the bottom line.

Just as Tyson, Pilgrim’s, Perdue, and Sanderson Farms—the four biggest poultry companies, which control 60 percent of the market—have forced their contract poultry farmers to adopt ever more inhumane farming practices in an effort to reduce cost and increase efficiency, so too, it seems, have they tried to squeeze as much efficiency as possible out of the factory processing line.

According to the Oxfam report, plant processing speeds today are twice what they were in 1979, and it seems companies are unwilling to employ an adequate number of workers who might step onto the line to fill in for someone who has to use the bathroom.

Of the four big poultry companies, only Tyson and Perdue responded to Oxfam’s request for comment on the advocacy group’s findings. Both companies maintain that the sort of treatment documented by Oxfam regarding woefully inadequate bathroom breaks is at odds with official company protocol; both at the same time attempt to hide behind a classic corporate dodge. “Since Oxfam America has declined to share the real names and locations of those making the allegations,” Tyson said in a statement, “it’s difficult for us to address them or gauge their validity.”

You can bet whoever wrote that statement most likely has regular access to the office washroom.