Workers Say Turkey Processing Jobs Are Thankless

Top producers have pledged reform, but workers say meeting holiday demand causes injuries and pays too little.
A worker processes turkeys at the West Liberty Foods processing plant in West Liberty, Iowa. (Photo: Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters)
Nov 26, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Shaya Tayefe Mohajer is TakePart's News Editor.

Omar Hassan worked at a turkey processing plant in St. Cloud, Minnesota, for two years and eight months before his body couldn’t take any more.

“It was an extremely difficult place to work. The line speed was extremely high, and many times you could be standing in the same position for eight hours without rotation,” the 26-year-old Somali native said through a translator.

Soon, injuries began affecting Hassan’s work, which he relies on to support himself and his mother.

“I could not bend the fingers of my right hand, and I had severe pain on my right shoulder, so I could no longer use my right hand or shoulder,” he said.

Hassan’s job processing about 55 turkeys a minute is not unusual for poultry production—what is unusual is workers who make a long, healthy career of such work, labor advocates say.

“Workers in poultry plants are often mistreated, and they’re treated as if they are disposable by their employers,” Sarah Rich, a staff attorney for the watchdog group Southern Poverty Law Center, told reporters recently. “There’s often 100 percent turnover in a poultry plant in a given year. This shows that obviously these jobs are not designed for human beings to withstand for very long.”

Federal regulators at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration released updated guidelines in 2013 to prevent and reduce the severity of musculoskeletal disorders in poultry processing, saying that this type of injury continues to “be common among workers,” and workers reported such injuries at higher rates than other industries.

Rich’s group conducted a survey of about 300 current and former poultry workers in 2013 to find out how frequently injuries were reported and found that 86 percent of those whose job it was to cut wings had hand and wrist pain, swelling, numbness, or an inability to close their hands.

When combined with chicken workers, human rights organization Oxfam estimates there are roughly 250,000 poultry workers in the U.S. In a report issued last month, the group called on the poultry industry, including turkey farmers and processers, to reexamine labor practices and come up with fairer standards.

Representatives for trade groups the National Turkey Federation and Minnesota Turkey Growers Association did not respond to requests for comment on this story.

Major producers have recently vowed to treat workers better. Tyson Foods announced last month that it is leading a new initiative to improve training and safety practices and created a new position: senior vice president of health and safety. Greg Spencer assumed that role and will lead a team of 500 health and safety professionals to, as he said in October, “improve workplace health through ergonomics, the science of making the workplace fit the worker. Sometimes we can prevent a repetitive injury by modifying a workspace or providing different tools.”

Labor activists said statements like those are very promising, but reforms have been slow to come.

“American consumers have the right to know that their food is being produced under safe, fair, and decent worker conditions,” Minor Sinclair, a director of operations at Oxfam, told reporters. Sinclair noted that it was the American consumers who succeeded in reducing and calling for cage-free hens.

The average American eats about 16 pounds of turkey every year—and has been known to go for seconds during the big bird’s big day, Thanksgiving. The industry produces 5 billion pounds of turkey annually, or about 237 million birds.

Minnesota, where Hassan worked, is the top turkey-producing state in the country, followed by Arkansas and North Carolina.

“I have been glad to work every day and bring a paycheck just like any American. I have helped make the holidays happen for many families before,” Hassan said, adding that he’s no longer able to.