The Politics of Poverty

Ideas and analysis from Oxfam America's policy experts

Raising worker voice at Big Poultry shareholder meetings

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Workers picketing at the entrance to the Country Club of Jackson, MS, where the Sanderson Farms Championship for professional golfers was held in October 2016. Oxfam and partners continue to find new ways to bring workers into the conversation about conditions inside poultry processing plants, and to elevate their voices to consumers, investors, and legislators. (Photo: Alexandre Galimberti / Oxfam America)

In the ongoing campaign to pressure the top US poultry companies to improve conditions for processing workers, Oxfam will soon present resolutions at their annual investor meetings to call on company leaders to implement changes. The angles will be new, but our bottom line will remain the same: workers need better pay, safer conditions, and dignity.

Good business means more than seeking short-term profits to boost the bottom line. It involves valuing diversity and inclusion, innovating, and investing in long-term sustainability.

Oxfam is delivering this message to three of the four largest US poultry firms in the next few months, when we present shareholder resolutions at the annual investor meetings of Tyson Foods, Sanderson Farms, and Pilgrim’s Pride. (The third-largest company, Perdue, is privately held.) Oxfam maintains an investor advocacy fund just for this reason. In compliance with SEC rules, owning shares in a public company enables us to exercise the right to file shareholder resolutions.

Last year, we introduced resolutions that directly addressed the health and safety of workers in the plants. This year, we are approaching the companies from different angles. We are advocating for increased diversity in Board positions, and a commitment to reduce the use of antibiotics in the poultry supply chain. When a Board reflects the composition of the workforce, it is more responsive and responsible. When a company responds to consumer pressure (and scientific evidence), it enhances its reputation and long-term prospects.

Tyson Foods: The resolution encourages Tyson to foster greater diversity on the Board, noting that diversity is linked to “better stock market and financial performance.”

Nearly two-thirds of Tyson’s workforce is comprised of people of color, a statistic that Tyson is, and should be, proud of. Yet, only one person of color currently sits on Tyson’s Board. Similarly, the number of women on Tyson’s Board (two out of nine) lags behind the proportion of women in its workforce (39%). Tyson has a moral and legal obligation to ensure the health and safety of its workers. A Board that better represents the gender and racial diversity of the workforce would go a long way towards identifying problems in working conditions and narrowing the gap between policy and reality.

(Shortly after Oxfam filed the resolution, Tyson named a third woman to the Board of Directors.)

Sanderson Farms: The resolution highlights Sanderson’s continued use of antibiotics, in spite of several companies’ move to phase them out. Sanderson has planted a flag in the ground that disregards the potential harms of antibiotics, and recently launched a marketing campaign to sell the idea. Our letter to investors reads:

Sanderson Farms has stated, “There is not any credible science that leads us to believe we’re causing antibiotic resistance in humans.” This stance ignores the scientific consensus that antibiotic use breeds resistant bacteria, which is recognized by every major medical authority. Sanderson’s position has led to substantial negative press.

Additionally, research has shown that poultry processing workers are 32 times more likely to carry antibiotic-resistant E. coli bacteria, meaning Sanderson Farms’ current use of antibiotics threatens the health and safety of many of its 11,000 employees.

We were pleased to learn just this week that at least one proxy advisory firm has recommended that stockholders vote in favor of this resolution.

Pilgrim’s Pride: The resolution for Pilgrim’s Pride also focuses on board diversity, noting that the company’s current board lacks any women or African Americans.

While Pilgrim’s Pride has publicly stated that health and safety are core to the company and that it is committed to providing a safe work environment, recent news reports and OSHA investigations have identified a substantial gap between its public statements and company policies, and actual conditions inside plants. A Board that better represents the gender and racial diversity of the workforce would go a long way towards identifying problems in working conditions and narrowing the gap between policy and reality.

The campaign for poultry workers has many fronts

Oxfam’s poultry worker justice campaign began in October 2015 with an extensive exposé on conditions inside poultry processing plants. We followed up in May 2016 with a report on the denial of bathroom breaks. We’ve engaged with investors, consumers, and the public to encourage these companies to do more to protect the health and safety of their workers.

We filed the resolutions this fall. We have also sent letters to Tyson, Sanderson, and Pilgrim’s Pride shareholders, encouraging them to support the resolutions. In February and April, we will attend the meetings and speak out in front of the board and shareholders.  We will make sure that the investors and executives who own and run Big Poultry hear from the workers whose hands produce the profits of these huge companies.

We thank you for your efforts so far, and we encourage you to keep up the fight.  Be sure to sign the petition and spread the word!

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