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Poultry and Pampers

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I talk all the time about horrible working conditions in the developing world. Many of those workers are producing goods for American companies, but usually through a supply chain. But American companies producing within the United States want to replicate those conditions domestically. Sometimes they can, especially in the meat industry.

A new report by Oxfam America, an arm of the international anti- poverty and injustice group, alleges that poultry industry workers are “routinely denied breaks to use the bathroom” in order to optimize the speed of production. In some cases, according to the group, the reality is so oppressive that workers “urinate and defecate while standing on the line” and “wear diapers to work.” In others, employees say they avoid drinking liquids for long periods and endure considerable pain in order to keep their jobs.

The findings are the result of hundreds of interviews with line workers from some of the largest poultry processing companies in the United States, including Tyson Foods, Pilgrim’s, and Perdue. And they bring the current state of the poultry industry into serious question. Competitive forces, they suggest, are driving poultry processors to produce as much meat as possible, as fast as possible, leading companies to mistreat their workers, even if unknowingly.

Today, poultry processing plants are allowed to funnel chickens through their assembly lines at a rate of 140 birds per minute, a rate which the industry recently lobbied to increase by another 35 birds per minute. The speed has been great for business, but for those working on the line, it has made for extremely taxing shifts. Just ask Debbie Berkowitz, a senior fellow at the National Employment Law Project who used to work with the government agency that oversaw industry practices. On Wednesday, she published a piece in response to the new report. This is how she described the conditions:

In my work at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, I witnessed the dangers: poultry workers stand shoulder to shoulder on both sides of long conveyor belts, most using scissors or knives, in cold, damp, loud conditions, making the same forceful movements thousands upon thousands of times a day, as they skin, pull, cut, debone and pack the chickens. The typical plant processes 180,000 birds a day. A typical worker handles 40 birds a minute.

This is absolutely reprehensible and is the result of a massive regulatory failure in this country. For all the good Tom Perez has done as Secretary of Labor, it will take years, not to mention a major increase in department funding from a recalcitrant Congress, to fix the poor regulatory regime. This isn’t even a clear violation of labor law but it’s quite clearly a violation of human rights. These are the wages of cheap chicken. Those low prices come at the cost of workers urinating themselves. Don’t accept this. Demand changes.

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