The hidden horrors in poultry plants

May 26, 2016

Dangerous working conditions abound in the poultry industry, according to an Oxfam report. Dorian Bon explains what this says about how corporations view workers.

THOUSANDS OF workers stand for up to 12 hours straight in freezing-cold, foul-smelling factories--aching, hurting, gasping for air, struggling to go on until their next bathroom break--while they relentlessly pull, cut and jab at dozens of chickens churning down the line every minute at dangerous speeds, repeating the same, intensive body-motions more than 20,000 times a day.

One by one, most are left injured, debilitated and sick.

This is the damning reality uncovered in a recent report on the U.S. poultry industry—called Lives on the Line: The Human Cost of Cheap Chicken—by the international human rights organization Oxfam. The details of how 280,000 workers are ruthlessly exploited and abused in one of the world's largest meatpacking industries speak volumes about just how cheap and expendable workers' lives are in Obama's America.

From the bosses' perspective, however, conditions in the poultry industry are exactly as they'd like. U.S. poultry is one of the great success stories of the much-touted "recovery" from the Great Recession of 2007-08.

A poultry worker on the line at a Montgomery, Alabama, plant
A poultry worker on the line at a Montgomery, Alabama, plant (Earl Dotter | Oxfam America)

According to the National Chicken Council, the country's largest employers' organization in the broiler chicken industry, U.S. poultry corporations sold nearly 9 billion chickens in 2015, mostly to domestic consumers, at a wholesale value of $60 billion.

Four powerful companies--Tyson Foods, Pilgrim's, Perdue and Sanderson Farms—control 60 percent of U.S. poultry and are making some of the highest profits among American corporations. In 2014, those four poultry companies brought in more than $2 billion in profits, while the executives of these companies made an average annual salary of $8 million, more than double their 2011 rewards.

On top of this, the poultry industry giants have received $196 million in tax credits and other government incentives since 1995. Tyson Foods' stock price rose by 84 percent in 2013-14, while Pilgrim's stocks shot up by more than 200 percent.

This bountiful flow of cash isn't exactly "trickling down" to the workers toiling on the factory floor. With average yearly pay in this sector running from $20,000 to $25,000, and wages sitting at around $11 an hour, labor's share of income looks more like a slow drip.

And this drip isn't enough to live on. Although poultry workers spend most of their waking lives processing food, most depend on federal assistance and private charity to feed themselves and their families.

But one of the most important grievances of poultry workers is that their lives are threatened every day by unsafe conditions in the workplace—conditions which are normally hidden from public view.

OVER A quarter million workers process chicken at 186 U.S. plants located predominantly in the Southeast. Most poultry workers are people of color, and many are undocumented immigrants. About a third of the workforce is represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers.

This is a higher proportion of unionized workers than in most other sectors of the U.S. economy, but lower than in other meatpacking industries, like beef and pork. Unions in the meatpacking industry won comparatively high workplace standards in the U.S. before the 1980s, but a renewed employers' offensive began to roll back most of these gains.

Poultry corporations are either silent or dishonest about workplace safety, and reports on factory conditions are few and far between. This makes Oxfam's research, which draws on over a thousand testimonies by poultry workers, all the more significant.

Employers have doubled the line speed on the factory floor during the last three decades, leading to an epidemic of workplace injuries. Throughout the poultry industry, workers process an average of 35 to 45 chickens per minute, or about 14,000 per day. Line workers, and especially hangers, who lift these chickens onto moving shackles, have to handle more than 2,000 artificially bloated, six-pound chickens every hour.

One worker named Juanita from a Tyson plant in North Carolina described this agonizing labor to an Oxfam researcher:

You can't stand the pain on your shoulders, your hands, because of that repetitive movement. That's when you start rotating your hands and using the scissors in one hand and using the other for another thing. It's just too much.

The bosses' aim is to extract as much labor as they can from their workforce to produce the greatest possible quantity of chickens to sell on the market. To do this, they assign supervisors on the factory line to monitor the motions of employees, and to reduce break and rest time to the extreme minimum.

Another worker at Tyson named Pedro reported that he and his colleagues were made to complete 12-hour shifts, with a meager 30-minute rest and only two or three bathroom breaks, all so that the factory line could keep churning out chickens without stoppages. "There's a lot of people peeing themselves because they would not let them use the bathroom," Pedro explained.

Pedro was later laid off for distributing informational pamphlets from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in the plant.

Dolores, a poultry worker in Arkansas, revealed that she and her co-workers started to wear diapers to avoid soiling their clothes on the plant floor:

I and many, many others had to wear Pampers. It was like having no worth. We would arrive at five in the morning...until 11 or 12 without using the bathroom. I was ashamed to tell them that I had to change my Pampers.

This kind of treatment isn't just humiliating and dehumanizing; it's also damaging to physical health. Poultry workers who struggle to wait for bathroom breaks suffer from prostate problems, and those who attempt to minimize breaks by drinking and eating less end up chronically dehydrated and malnourished throughout the workweek.

THE MOST dangerous aspect of poultry work is the combination of repetitive strain injuries, chemical burns, gnarled limbs and musculoskeletal disorders that results from making human beings cogs in a high-speed, chicken-processing machine.

It's difficult to estimate the number of poultry workers injured or sickened on the job, because most cases go undocumented. But a study of Alabama poultry workers by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) shows just how high the number could be.

The SPLC interviewed 302 workers from typical poultry-processing plants in Alabama, and found that 72 percent of these reported "significant workplace injuries or illnesses," while 77 percent of the line workers (hangers, cutters, de-boners, etc.) complained of hand and wrist disorders.

Many workers, like Karina Zorita, another Tyson employee from Charlotte, North Carolina, described to Oxfam researchers the horrific experiences of musculoskeletal disorders, which make everyday motions like holding someone's hand or embracing your child unbearably painful.

In the face of all of this, the big corporations that run the U.S. poultry industry simply shrug their shoulders. They're only concerned with their bottom line. One worker named Bacilio Castro told interviewers that his factory supervisor used to ignore his requests to pause and receive treatment because of line injuries.

Finally, Bacilio recounted, "I was enraged and pulled the glove off my hand, and he [the supervisor] saw my bloody hand. He wasn't pleased that I was on the line, and that blood dripped onto it."

Dolores told Oxfam investigators she felt she had "no worth" on the factory floor. Clearly, workers' lives don't matter at all to corporate behemoths like Tyson Foods, Pilgrim's and Perdue.

This doesn't stop the poultry giants from benefiting from friends in high places. For example, poultry's biggest corporation, Tyson Foods, which owns 23 percent of the U.S. market, has close ties with former President Bill Clinton.

As Eric Ruder reported for Socialist Worker in 2003, the Tyson family funded Clinton's campaign to become Arkansas governor. The company was later convicted of giving illegal gifts to Clinton's secretary of agriculture, who then helped the company bypass environmental regulations.

That might seem like old history—but remember that the likely Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton has promised to put her husband "in charge of revitalizing the economy" once she takes office. Try explaining that to Tyson workers.

ALTHOUGH THE realities exposed in Oxfam's report are extreme, the U.S. poultry industry isn't an outlier in the national economy--in many ways, the sector is quite mainstream.

The kind of ruthless exploitation and degradation of labor found in U.S. poultry is actually characteristic of the entire capitalist system in which we live. For-profit, industrial production rewards the corporations that are able to pump out the highest number of products at the lowest costs.

In most cases, the best way for the bosses to accomplish this is by automating large parts of the work process to increase productivity—and intensifying and extending the labor performed by workers on the job.

The competition between firms leads to giant corporations, capable of marshaling complex machinery and intensely exploiting their workers, until they can claim large chunks of the market, just like Tyson, Perdue and Pilgrim's do in the example of U.S. poultry.

Workers employed in such enterprises are forced to act like appendages in an overpowering, production machine, performing repetitive, strenuous tasks to keep the apparatus in motion, at a pace and schedule of the bosses' choosing.

Hypothetically, it would be possible to automate the tasks that many workers carry out in these situations. But the employers find it easier to maintain their control over production by forcing human beings to perform grueling assembly and processing functions.

The growing ratio between machines and workers in production often leads to higher unemployment and increasing competition in the labor market. The threat of dismissal and replacement compels many workers to accept more dangerous conditions and less compensation.

One Tyson worker recalled how supervisors would yell at him to keep up the intense pace on the factory line. "There are a hundred applications waiting to come in!" the supervisor said.

The more control the bosses have, the more they dedicate resources to raise productivity at the expense of safety. Injured workers are heartlessly replaced. As the SPLC study of Alabama's poultry industry reported, "Quite simply, it is often cheaper to run an unsafe plant and pay miniscule fines than to protect workers from injury and illness."

WORKPLACE SAFETY will vary depending on the particular, technical needs of each industry—and, crucially, the success of workers in fighting for greater rights and better standards. Although the poultry industry is unusually dangerous, it's actually more reflective of overall working conditions in the U.S. than one might think.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that over 3 million workers were injured or fell sick on the job in 2014. A report by the AFL-CIO on the inadequacy of federal workplace safety surveys contends that the actual figure is likely closer to 7 million. More than 50,000 U.S. workers die every year because of accumulated workplace injuries and illnesses.

But we hardly ever hear about this grim reality—because it doesn't serve the interests of the rich and powerful who run this system to discuss it.

The struggle to end exploitation and abuse in the poultry industry has to be part of a broader fight to make the needs of workers a central part of the political conversation. Workers' experiences vary widely depending on their particular circumstances—but at the end of the day, the interests of all working class people are fundamentally aligned.

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