Politics of Poverty

Faith in action: Ethical investors stand up for poultry workers

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Poultry worker demonstration outside the National Chicken Council's annual meeting in Washington, DC. Left: Karen; center: Maria; right: Bacilio Castro. Photo: Coco McCabe/Oxfam America

The Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility calls for the fair treatment of workers in US poultry processing plants.

Nadira Narine is the Program Director for Strategic Initiatives at the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility

These days, you see people of faith advocating and organizing around a wide variety of causes. One place you might not expect us though, is a meat processing plant.

But even there, issues warrant our concern.

For many years, members of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR), together with global ministries in food-insecure communities, have advocated for an equitable, accessible and sustainable food system that nourishes both people and planet.

Integral to the sustainability of our food system is the health, safety and prosperity of its workforce, yet the agricultural and food production sectors here in the United States have long histories of egregious violations against their employees. Millions of food production workers – and poultry workers in particular – earn low wages and work long hours in unsafe and unhealthy conditions. In fact, it is not uncommon for full-time workers in these industries to be living beneath the poverty line.

Working in meat processing plants can be dangerous if adequate safety protocols aren’t in place. Workers frequently suffer from repetitive stress injuries, cuts and adverse reactions to gases and chemicals. Risks which are exacerbated—and could be easily mitigated—through management of line speed, climate control, staffing levels, job rotation and other small adjustments.

So, you may be wondering: why do interfaith investors care about this?

Oxfam’s new report “Lives on the Line: The Human Cost of Cheap Chicken” outlines where investor interest and the importance of improved conditions for workers intersect. We are concerned about the enormous societal consequences of the industry as well as the risks it poses for business.   How businesses respond to these concerns – namely, whether or not they put in place proactive policies and practices to safeguard their workers – will determine their level of exposure to legal, regulatory and reputational risk.

As an investor coalition we see real risks to businesses that fail to adequately support their employees, and we see that the poultry sector is failing miserably. From a business perspective, if nothing is done, poultry companies may face lower worker productivity, and potentially labor strikes or work stoppages. These are just a few reasons why we support Oxfam’s call for companies to quickly change the way they treat their workers. It is our belief  that companies that guarantee employees a living wage, safe working conditions, and respect workers’ rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining will reap the benefits in reduced turnover, increased productivity, and overall job satisfaction and loyalty.

Currently, the top four US chicken companies – Tyson Foods, Pilgrim’s, Perdue, and Sanderson Farms,  control roughly 60 percent of the domestic market. Each of these companies tout the value of sustainability, but fail to recognize true sustainability isn’t only about care for the environment and natural resources, but care for people as well. You simply can’t call the production of any food sustainable when it’s produced by people whose ability to sustain themselves and their families is handicapped by low wages and dangerous working conditions. It’s time for poultry companies to back up their rhetoric with actions in support of their workers that will make them truly sustainable.

Contrary to popular belief, many investors see real value in recommendations for companies to provide a healthy and safe environment in their facilities and offer quick and adequate care for workers when injuries do occur. Our food system is fragile, and if our businesses and families are going to thrive, we need all companies in the food supply chain (producers, processors and distributors) as well as investors, to ensure that their policies and practices advance innovative solutions that will help create a system that not only lasts, but respects rights and dignity.

As a first step – for our part – ICCR will integrate Oxfam’s recommendations for the industry into our own advocacy platform. In that spirit, we call on companies to:

  • Adopt a policy on human rights and labor in accordance with the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the International Labor Organization’s Declaration on the Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work with accessible, confidential grievance mechanisms available to workers;
  • Adopt, implement and verify a code of conduct that guarantees workers the right to a living wage and the right to organize and bargain collectively, and protects against retaliation for organizing;
  • Address the health and safety risks facing workers in the food supply chain;
  • Bridge the gap between corporate responsibility and human resources and integrate ethics into supply chain management.

We’re ready to work together for workers. And we hope poultry companies will join us. Not just because it’s good business, but because it’s right.

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