Politics of Poverty

Why the “filthy chicken rule” is bad for workers, too

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Salvadora Roman, left, a poultry worker from Alabama, with US Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, at podium, and members of Congress and advocates at a briefing on Capitol Hill. Photo: Oliver Gottfried/Oxfam America

Oxfam and advocates on Capitol Hill say the proposed rule could threaten both food safety and workers’ health.

Oliver Gottfried is a Senior Advocacy and Collaborations Advisor at Oxfam America. He helps lead Oxfam’s advocacy and coalition work with low-wage workers, particularly women, immigrants, and people of color, working in agriculture and food systems in the United States.

“The pain was so bad that it kept me awake at night.” That’s what Salvadora Roman said about the injuries she suffered working at a poultry plant in Alabama. After 17 years on the line, Roman’s hands were so swollen and painful that she could barely manage the work of pulling and slicing.

“My hands couldn’t take the fast line speeds anymore. They would fall asleep when I was working on the line,” she said. When she asked to be moved to another position, her manager refused; when the pain got worse and she sought medical attention, she was fired for missing work. Months later, her hands have still not recovered; she lives with the pain every day.

The American poultry industry relies on roughly 200,000 workers like Roman to process chickens and turkeys. Predominantly women, immigrants, and people of color, they spend their days in plants that are dark and very cold. These conditions are meant to reduce stress on the birds, but they end up making life difficult for humans who spend their days there. Or, as one North Carolina poultry worker put it: “Slavery still exists today. It’s been mechanized and it happens during a 40-hour week.”

Hundreds of thousands of poultry workers face working conditions like Roman’s, and most of them report this kind of repetitive strain injury. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), poultry workers “have consistently suffered injuries and illnesses at a rate more than twice the national average” over the past 30 years. Experts say these numbers may be seriously underreporting the problem. A 2005 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) acknowledges that, even with underreporting, “the meat and poultry industry still has one of the highest rates of injury and illness of any industry.”

One of the leading causes of injury and danger on the processing line is the speed at which the chickens go rushing by the workers: sometimes as high as 45 or 50 birds per minute, or almost one per second.

You would think that’s plenty fast. But apparently it’s not fast enough for the poultry industry. They’re seeking to speed up their production lines by a full 25 percent. Right now, the US Department of Agriculture is proposing a rule that would permit this change.

In further bad news, the new rule (sometimes referred to informally as the “filthy chicken rule”) also removes most federal food inspectors from the processing line. This would mean inspectors who remain on the line (who would be employees of the poultry companies themselves and would not be required to undergo any formal training) would have even less time to look for fecal contamination, bile, diseases, tumors, feathers, intestines, and other defects.

In the effort to stop this dangerous new rule, Oxfam recently partnered with several organizations to bring eight poultry workers to Washington DC to tell their stories and relay the reality of life on the line. The workers were seven women and one man, all African-American or Latino, and were from some of the top poultry-producing states: Mississippi, Arkansas, Alabama, and North Carolina.

During the trip, we met with top officials in the Administration and spoke out at a Congressional briefing. Workers shared their stories at the Department of Labor and the Department of Agriculture (where the rule was first proposed) to make sure top DOL and USDA officials heard first-hand from poultry workers.  We spent the next day on Capitol Hill, starting with a press conference and briefing for Congressional staff and allies.

Joined by Representatives Bennie Thompson (Mississippi), Marcia Fudge (Ohio), and Sheila Jackson Lee (Texas), the workers spoke to a packed briefing room. Members of Congress shared their outrage: “The courageous workers here today refuse to remain silent,” said Representative Jackson Lee. “In small towns across the country, poultry jobs are the only jobs. Workers who raise safety concerns risk getting fired. The workers who traveled to Washington speak for many who work in fear.” After the briefing, the workers fanned out across Capitol Hill, raising awareness and generating opposition to the rule change.

The good news is we’re making a difference. While the rule was proposed over two years ago, it has yet to be enacted–largely because of the pushback from a wide variety of organizations. But the poultry industry is a powerful force; they spend half a million dollars every year on lobbying. Oxfam will continue to make sure poultry workers’ voices are elevated and part of the debate in Washington around this rule.

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