Food Industry

U.S. Poultry Workers Say They Are Routinely Denied Breaks

U.S. Poultry Workers Say They Are Routinely Denied Breaks
Image credit: ChinaFotoPress/Stringer | Getty Images

Chicken factories have long been called out for the unfair treatment of animals -- but according to a new report, human employees on the processing line are also working in appalling conditions.

In many large scale chicken factories, workers are routinely denied bathroom breaks -- leading some to urinate or defecate on the line, or even wear diapers to work, according to a Thursday report from human rights organization, Oxfam. The reported cited unnamed workers from Tyson Foods, Pilgrim’s Pride, Perdue Farms, and Sanderson Farms.

“Supervisors deny requests to use the bathroom because they are under pressure to maintain the speed of the processing line, and to keep up production,” the report detailed. “Once a poultry plant roars to a start at the beginning of the day, it doesn’t stop until all the chickens are processed. Workers are reduced to pieces of the machine, little more than the body parts that hang, cut, trim, and load -- rapidly and relentlessly.”

In some cases, workers are given five minutes to strip of their gear and sprint to the bathroom, and fail to make it in time.

“Too many workers tell stories about urinating on themselves, or witnessing coworkers urinating on themselves,” the report stated.

The problem can be traced back to the amount of chicken the country consumes. A factory will process a total of 140 birds a minute -- setting a grisly pace for workers and leaving little to no time for a break. Debbie Berkowitz, a senior fellow at the National Employment Law Project, has seen the chicken processing industry at work and detailed it in a piece for Quartz:

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.

Out of fear of retaliation, poultry farm workers also stay silent despite the degrading treatment. Supervisors often yell, humiliate, and threaten workers with deportation or termination.

Federal law requires employers to install bathrooms in the factories, and suggests instituting a tag system, allowing a worker to go to the bathroom, and another to temporarily take his or her place on the line. But enforcing the law is a different story. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration only inspects 1 percent of workplaces a year. A recent OSHA investigation into a Delaware plant however found that workers were being denied use of the restroom.

In response to the report, Tyson Foods told Oxfam that “restroom breaks are not restricted to scheduled work breaks and can be taken at any time.” Perdue also responded: “After an internal review, it does not appear that these associates have taken advantage of Perdue’s Open Door Policy or other available options to voice their concerns.”

Oxfam’s research is based on data and interviews from 2013 to 2016.

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