Americans love to eat chicken, and the demand for chicken continues to rise. But in order to keep billions of chickens pumping out of poultry plants each year, workers earn low wages, suffer injuries, and have little-to-no voice in their workplaces, according to a new report from Oxfam America. But the most shocking finding of the report is this: Workers are regularly forced to wear diapers on the line because they are not permitted to take regular bathroom breaks. Others just urinate or defecate while on the line.
Oxfam says it spent three years researching work conditions in the poultry business. They say their staff travelled across the US to conduct interviews with workers, advocates, attorneys, medical experts, and analysts—all in an attempt to find out what is really going on behind the scenes.
And here's what they found: the organic, free-range chicken you eat may have a better life than the worker who prepped it in a factory.
Oliver Gottfried, Oxfam America's Senior Advocacy Advisor, told MUNCHIES: Even if you buy organic or free-range, "once chickens reach a poultry processing plant, most still go through the stages outlined [in the report]; most workers still perform their tasks by hand in the same conditions described."
Although Oxfam didn't focus on small, local processors, Gottfried told MUNCHIES, "Some of the small businesses and companies that specialize in organic or free-range chickens do process their birds under different conditions. That said, some of the most popular organic and natural brands—such as Coleman Organic—are owned by the four top companies. And their chickens are processed just the way we've described."
The problem boils down to limited break times in an effort to keep workers at their posts. Supervisors feel the pressure to keep the production line moving as fast as possible and to keep machines running. Workers say they are not allowed to take breaks or are punished for doing so. Oxfam surveyed 266 workers in Alabama and 80 percent said they could not go to the bathroom when needed; 86 percent said the same thing in a Minnesota survey. Harassment and punishment can be the result of simply using the bathroom as needed, say the workers.
"What would be shocking in most workplaces happens far too often in poultry plants: Workers relieving themselves while standing at their work station," the report says. A worker named Dolores is quoted in the report as saying, "I had to wear Pampers. I and many, many others had to wear Pampers." She said she felt like she had "no worth, no right to ask questions or to speak up."
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The report asks Tyson, Pilgrim's, Perdue, and Sanderson Farms, the four biggest poultry suppliers in the US, which control 60 percent of the market and employ 100,000 workers, to step up and set a better standard for workers. Pilgrim's Pride told MUNCHIES, in part, that "Bathroom breaks have not been raised as an issue in any of our internal team member satisfaction surveys, nor in the results of our third-party-conducted sustainable safety culture surveys." They also said, "Any allegations of the nature claimed by Oxfam, if proven, would be clear violations of company policy and would result in disciplinary action."
Similarly, Tyson told MUNCHIES as part of a longer statement, "We do not tolerate the refusal of requests to use the restroom." They claim to "use an independent audit firm to assess working conditions in our plants," and "listen to our Team Members through many channels to make sure they're being treated respectfully." Tyson says they've also met with Oxfam and are "always willing to consider ways we can do better." We also reached out to Perdue and Sanderson Farms but have yet to hear back from them.
Oxfam's report suggests that if the processors do have policies intact that allow sufficient bathroom breaks, these policies are not being enforced at the factory level. Gottfried of Oxfam says consumers who want to make a difference can: "The poultry companies do care what consumers think about how their food is processed. As consumers have begun to speak out about the safety of their food and the treatment of chickens, the industry has responded: many companies are phasing out antibiotics and/or raising chickens differently."
Oxfam says consumers need to learn more about how workers are treated, and now, thanks to this report, they can.