Chicken parm. Chicken wings. Grilled chicken. Since the 1960s, our love affair with chicken has grown every decade. Each American will eat an average of 90 pounds of chicken this year, compared with just 37 pounds back in 1965. And our hunger hasn’t shown signs of satiety: For more than 20 years, chicken has comfortably held position as the nation’s most popular meat.
Workers in the industry know this better than anyone. Being a poultry worker–and doing the repetitive physical labor of tearing, cutting, and deboning meat on the line–has always been a difficult, dangerous, and low-wage job. But it’s been getting harder over the years, as workers struggle to keep pace with the speeds of their employer’s production lines.
The nonprofit Oxfam America has documented the experience of these workers in a new report and campaign launched today. Aimed at both consumers and government regulators, the campaign demands change from the top four chicken producers–Tyson Foods, Pilgrim’s, Perdue, and Sanderson Farms. Remember Upton Sinclair’s 1906 masterpiece The Jungle, which you read in high school and which documented the harrowing conditions in meatpacking plants? Well, it’s not that bad. But it’s not great.
“The industry is pushing workers beyond their limits,” says Oliver Gottfried, a senior advocacy advisor at Oxfam America.
The USDA’s legal limit on a factory’s line speed was 70 birds per minute in 1979; today it is 140 birds per minute (and advocates defeated an industry push to increase that legal limit to 170 birds per minute last year). These speed refer to the first steps of the process–evisceration of the carcass–which are handled by machines. But the machine-generated speeds at the start of the process affect production later down the line, where humans come in with knives and other tools to handle taking apart the meat limb by limb. There, workers reported to Oxfam they handle an average of 35 to 45 birds per minute, or more than one every two seconds to keep up.
“The industry uses workers like perpetual motion machines,” says Tom Fritzsche, a former lawyer for the Southern Poverty Law Center who has interviewed hundreds of poultry workers in Arkansas for earlier research and contributed to the Oxfam report.
A worker, Fritzsche estimates, may complete anywhere from 20,000 to 100,000 repetitive pulling, cutting, and tearing motions in a single eight hour day while working in a cold and damp environment. Workers get a lunch break, but his surveys have shown that nearly 80% report not being able to take bathroom breaks during the day when needed.
Workplace injuries and illnesses are also common, especially musculoskeletal disorders that come with repetitive movements: A Centers for Disease Control report last year found that 76% of employees at one Maryland facility had abnormal nerve conduction and 1 in 3 had evidence of carpal tunnel syndrome. And benefits like paid sick leave in the industry are rare, according to the Oxfam report. The industry reports its average pay at $11.60 an hour–more than minimum wage, but still not enough to raise a family much above the poverty line.
Part of the problem is that regulations are slim and inspectors are sparse. OSHA, the federal workplace safety authority, has few resources to come close to policing every facility. Even as it has put in place better record inspection program recently, fines for violations may not be enough of a deterrent. And USDA, which regulates line speeds, has historically been more concerned with food safety than worker issues, according to Fritzsche.
The poultry industry steadfastly disputes many of the Oxfam report’s characterizations. The National Chicken Council points to occupational injury and illness rates that have fallen by 80% in the last 20 years and continue to decline, according to U.S. Department of Labor data, and are lower than other kinds of animal slaughtering and processing facilities. It also says the industry has invested in ergonomic interventions and that workers do generally receive competitive pay, sick days, and benefits.
A Tyson Foods spokesperson, Gary Mickelson, told Co.Exist that that he disagreed with aspects of the report though they appreciated Oxfam’s intentions. For example, the company’s production supervisors are supposed to offer bathroom breaks as needed, and workers are offered affordable health benefits. While paid sick leave is not a benefit afforded hourly Tyson workers, it offers short-term disability after a five day wait. He also explains several ways Tyson has made significant health and safety investments.
A lot of the he said / she said in this argument comes down to who you trust. Not everything the industry reports is backed up by outside data, and clearly some companies or facilities may be much better than others. Celeste Monforton, a lecturer with the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at George Washington University who joined Oxfam’s campaign, says that the industry’s falling injury rates should be taken with “a skeptical eye.” Companies can pressure workers in various ways not to report injuries: “When you look at those instances where OSHA goes into the plants and looks at the injury rates, they tell quite a different story,” she says.
Indeed today’s poultry workforce–about 250,000 people–is made up largely of immigrants who may fear reprisal. The industry has long employed those with the fewest advantages–and the least recourse to speak up. Many current workers are drawn from refugee populations, indigenous Central American immigrants who aren’t native Spanish or English speakers, and even prison laborers, according to Oxfam.
Bacilio Castro is one former worker whose story is told in the report. When he worked at Case Farms in Morganton, North Carolina from 2002 to 2004 for $6 and later $7.50 an hour, cutting birds with not-quite-sharp-enough knives, he struggled to keep up one day as a manager sped up the line. The day’s production had been running behind, he remembers. Castro ended up cutting his palm deeply with a knife that day, but company medical staff just told him to take some painkillers. The injury got worse and today “it’s permanent.” His palm goes numb when he tries to lift heavy objects, he told Co.Exist through a translator.
Though that was more than a decade ago, OSHA has fined Case Farms more than $1.4 million this year after a teenager lost his leg in an accident at the company’s Ohio plant.
Oxfam believes the four largest companies, which control 60% of the industry, are in the best position to make change. And there are signs that things are getting better. Recently this October, Tyson Foods said it was raising the wages for about 34,000 employees at its U.S. chicken plants. The truth is that the pool of workers willing to do this labor is shrinking, and conditions may have to improve to keep the factories running.
Castro, the former poultry worker, has left the industry–sort of. He now works as an organizer of other poultry workers at the Western North Carolina Workers Center. In the short term, a worker committee at Case Foods’ Morganton plant will be pushing for more bathroom breaks, he says. The long-term goal is much larger reform of how workers are treated. He says that chicken consumers need to get involved.
“I have great faith that things will change in the future,” he says. “I also know it will not be easy. I don’t think that workers can do it alone, and I don’t think that organizations can do it alone.”