Politics of Poverty

No relief for poultry workers

Posted by
Roughly 250,000 poultry workers in the US endure arduous conditions for low wages, standing for long hours in cold, wet, noisy plants. However, many workers say the top request they have is for companies is to grant them adequate bathroom breaks. (Photo: John D. Simmons / The Charlotte Observer)

The federal government says workers have the legal right to use the bathroom. Tyson Foods, the country’s biggest poultry producer, has an official company policy stating the same thing. So why do so many Tyson workers say they are routinely denied bathroom breaks—and are compelled to urinate on themselves or purposefully dehydrate themselves as a result?

Tyson is the country’s leading poultry producer, controlling 23 percent of the US chicken market and pulling in nearly $40 billion a year.  It is the leader in other ways, as well.  Tyson is the only one of the country’s top poultry producers that has a workers’ “Bill of Rights” that commits to maintaining a safe workplace and upholding certain protections for workers, including the right to take bathroom breaks on an as-needed basis.  This is in accordance with federal regulations, which require that “employers allow employees prompt access to sanitary facilities.” There’s no question that other top poultry producers—including Pilgrim’s, Perdue, and Sanderson Farms—should take Tyson’s lead and publicly commit to providing adequate bathroom breaks to their workers.

But having a policy on paper isn’t enough. In researching a new report on bathroom breaks in the poultry industry, Oxfam interviewed dozens of Tyson workers across six states, almost all of whom reported being denied bathroom breaks outright or having to wait an unreasonably long time to use the bathroom—up to an hour or more.  Hanson, a worker at a Tyson plant in Arkansas, had the uncomfortable experience of seeing his own mother urinate on the line; she now wears diapers to work to avoid it happening again. Tyson workers also report being fined if they are late returning from the bathroom. Jean, a worker from a Tyson Foods plant in Virginia, says, “You go to the bathroom one minute late, they have you disciplined. The supervisor will have you sign a discipline paper… I don’t drink any water so I won’t have to go.”

This isn’t acceptable: it’s against the law, it threatens workers’ health and dignity, and it violates Tyson’s own policy.  Tyson—and its competitors in the poultry industry—must do more to protect the health, safety, dignity, and well-being of their workers.  Tyson is best poised to implement and monitor their policy; they can do it and show others how. The other companies are lagging behind, and Tyson has the opportunity to show them the way.

Oxfam launched its campaign for poultry worker justice in October 2015 with an extensive exposé on conditions inside poultry processing plants.  Our report, Lives on the Line, based on three years of research and interviews with dozens of current and former poultry workers and experts, uncovered the cruel realities inside these cold, noisy, dangerous plants. Roughly 250,000 poultry workers earn poverty level wages with few benefits; suffer injuries and illnesses at high rates and then may be prevented from receiving proper medical care; and work in a climate of fear where they are afraid to speak out about the injustices they suffer.

We targeted the top four poultry companies—Tyson Foods, Pilgrim’s, Perdue, and Sanderson Farms—which control nearly 60 percent of the domestic chicken market.  We’ve been reaching out to these four companies since last summer and filed shareholder resolutions earlier this year to encourage company investors to push for greater transparency and accountability on worker health and safety.

To its credit, Tyson has taken a number of steps since October to address some of the issues raised in Oxfam’s report. These include pay increases for a third of its workers and a pilot project to improve worker health and safety that is now operational in 19 plants.  Most recently, Tyson created a webpage addressing safety and health and worker benefits and published a new worker reporting section that provides more information about how Tyson treats its workforce.  These are all positive developments—and clearly set Tyson apart from its competitors on its publicly stated policies on worker health, safety, and well-being.

But these policies alone do not ensure that Tyson workers can actually go to the bathroom when they need to.  Tyson needs to do more to close the often large gap between policies coming from company headquarters and the day-to-day realities of life on the production line in Tyson’s plants.

Two important moves, in particular, would help close this gap.  First, top poultry companies—including Tyson—should commission an anonymous survey of their workers conducted by an outside assessor that has credibility with workers and advocates to ensure that workers feel open and comfortable expressing their concerns.  Too often, poultry workers say they work in a climate of fear and don’t feel safe raising problems to company management, including to their anonymous call number in fear that they are actually monitoring it.

Second, poultry companies must commit to undertake a program of rigorous, third-party audits to gauge the gap between company policies and day-to-day plant-level practices affecting workers.  They must commit to making findings from the audits public—so they can be held to account—and to addressing the issues that the audits uncover.

Tyson recently committed to a third-party audit of every plant in its operations—a significant step forward.  But major questions remain.  Who will conduct these audits?  Will the results be made public?  Will there be a program of action steps to address issues the audits uncover?  Will workers have a voice in the process—in the selection of the auditor, in the issues studied, and the action steps to follow?

Getting the right policies in place is a necessary first step.  But as Oxfam’s new report demonstrates, for too many workers those policies aren’t sufficient to ensure they get the breaks they need and are legally entitled to.

All poultry producers must commit to a set of common sense steps to make sure they treat their workers with the respect and dignity they deserve.

We urge you to join the fight, as well. Take action now and tell Tyson to give their workers a break.

Oxfam.org Facebook Twitter Instagram YouTube Google+