Politics of Poverty

Not so fast: Still opposing an increase in line speed

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Shortly after the release of Oxfam’s landmark report on the poultry industry workforce, Lives on the Line, we joined poultry workers from North Carolina and Arkansas at a protest outside the annual meeting of the National Chicken Council in Washington, DC in November 2015. Oxfam has been working with a broad coalition for several years. (Photo: Coco McCabe / Oxfam)

As the poultry industry pushes (again) to raise the line speed, a broad coalition rallies (again) to mount an opposition.

Here we are again, fighting a battle we once won. A new administration, and new leadership at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), has opened the door for the poultry industry to renew its efforts to waive the rule that holds line speed in poultry plants to 140 birds per minute (BPM).

That’s right: 140 is the current speed. Already too fast. So fast that poultry workers are injured at\almost twice the rate of workers in private industry. These workers face over seven times the national average of occupational illnesses, such as repetitive motion injuries. It’s hard to see how anything good can come from waiving the limit and allowing faster speeds. It poses risks to consumers, animals, and workers.

Oxfam was proud to join an unprecedentedly broad coalition of advocates to testify at the USDA about the dangers of allowing an increase in poultry processing line speed. Three women who work in a poultry plant (standing at the front) traveled from North Carolina to convey their direct experiences with the relentless line: injuries, lack of bathroom breaks, & climate of fear. (Photo: Bacilio Castro)

This is why Oxfam joined a coalition of groups for a meeting at the USDA last week, where we raised a variety of concerns about the dangers inherent in increasing the line speed. Among those speaking: food safety inspectors questioned the capacity to ensure that carcasses are uncompromised; animal rights organizations spoke to the potential for abuse of the chickens; and worker advocates covered the links between rapid line speed and elevated rates of injuries and illnesses, especially from repetitive motions. (Refer to a full list of the participants in the coalition.)

However, by far the most compelling and chilling testimony came from three women who work in a poultry processing plant in North Carolina; and from one worker on the phone from Alabama.

The first worker relayed the arduous and dangerous nature of her work, pulling breasts from carcasses hanging from a line that moves rapidly and relentlessly. In a small, slippery, cold space, she did the same motion thousands of times per shift. After only four months on the job, she incurred carpal tunnel syndrome, suffering numbness and tingling in both arms and hands, and now has difficulty doing chores and lifting her children.

She also suffered severe cuts and lacerations from the sharp knives in the wet conditions. A co-worker once lost control of a knife, and it fell on her face. “It’s just too fast, so it’s dangerous,” she says.

The second worker spoke of the anxiety and fear in the plant, especially around getting information about workers’ rights on the job. When workers ask, they may be penalized (under the points system), or even fired.

A third woman talked about the shame and humiliation the workers suffer from being denied breaks to go to the bathroom. She said they have to ask several times before they’re allowed to go–then they have only a few minutes to race across the plant, remove their gear, use the facilities, then race back to the line. The plants make few accommodations for women who are pregnant or menstruating. One woman who was pregnant was denied regular access to the bathroom; on one occasion, she had such severe stomach pain that she left and went to the doctor. He diagnosed her with a urinary tract infection so serious that it threatened the life of the baby.

“These stories captivated everyone in the room,” notes Michelle Sternthal, senior public policy advisor for Oxfam. “It was the moment when the staffers really perked up and paid attention. If anything can make a difference, it was this.”

Currently, the line is fast enough to bring record-high productivity and profits to the industry. So you’d think that would be the end of it.

Indeed, in 2014, it was. That year, Oxfam joined the effort to oppose an increase in the allowable line speed on poultry processing lines – and won. The change was part of a new regulation to “modernize” the poultry industry. Among its provisions was an increase in line speed: from 140 BPM (already too fast, and part of the reason for the high rate of repetitive strain injuries in the poultry workforce) to 175 BPM (25 percent faster).

Eventually, the Administration listened; the final regulation didn’t include the provision that would have allowed the increase in line speeds. So a bad situation didn’t get any worse, due to incredible work by a wide variety of advocates over a period of two and a half years.

Fast forward to 2017, and the National Chicken Council is trying again; in the new climate in Washington, DC, they have greater chance of success.

However, Oxfam and others are determined to mount a strong opposition, and to raise the voices of the people who experience the reality of line speed every day. You can make your voice heard by submitting comments to the  Food Safety and Inspection Service directly on this site.

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