Politics of Poverty

Ruffling feathers and making an impact: Oxfam’s campaign for poultry workers’ rights

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Workers voicing their concerns to industry: Outside the annual meeting of the trade association National Chicken Council, former poultry worker Pedro talks to Tom Super, Senior Vice President of Communications of the Council. Super brought snacks and water to the workers who were standing with a banner that said “The human cost of your chicken is too high.” He spoke to each of the workers and listened to their concerns. Credit: Coco McCabe/Oxfam America

Just one week after it began, Oxfam’s new campaign focused on poultry workers is already seeing real change, and is working for more.

Oliver Gottfried is a Senior Campaigns Strategist at Oxfam America. 

On October 27, Oxfam America launched a new campaign that aims to improve the lives of the roughly 250,000 poultry workers in the US. They earn low wages, suffer high rates of injury and illness, and often work in a climate of fear. For information about the challenges facing poultry workers, please explore our interactive site, Lives on the Line, or read our full report.

For years, Oxfam has strived to create innovative strategies that tap into the energy and goodwill of consumers and supporters. One of Oxfam’s most promising approaches is to work with private sector actors to make positive change. We engage with businesses on a wide variety of issues and at all points in their supply chains to search for ways in which their mission aligns with ours.  We acknowledge their good will, their capacity to innovate, their ability to reach millions of consumers – and their potential to improve. We make room for good business and for better practice.

Now, as we seek to improve the difficult conditions facing workers in poultry plants across the US, we are using many of the same methods. Over the last two years, Oxfam has partnered with over a dozen organizations to advocate for poultry workers. We’ve been working with civil rights organizations, unions, workers’ rights groups, and worker centers in poultry-producing states. We’ve collaborated on raising awareness about the poultry industry, and are now pushing consumers, policy makers, and the poultry industry to make positive changes for the workers.

We are targeting the top four poultry companies to lead the way and improve conditions for their workforce—Tyson Foods, Pilgrim’s, Perdue, and Sanderson Farms. Together, these four companies control 60 percent of the chicken market in the US, employ more than 100,000 line workers, and sell hundreds of products that are in every top retail store, restaurant chain, and food service line.

Here’s how we’re doing it:

  • We are reaching out to the top companies, and inviting them to work with us. So far, Tyson and Perdue have engaged with us and provided a response to the report.
  • We are educating consumers about the reality of life on the line in poultry plants and gathering thousands of signatures on a petition to the four companies. We are engaging dozens of influential voices in this campaign, including Dan Glickman (Former Secretary, US Department of Agriculture), Frances Moore Lappé and Anna Lappé (founding principals, Small Planet Institute), and Dolores Huerta (pioneering labor leader and co-founder of United Farm Workers).
  • We are planning actions at several industry events. For example, on October 29, we demonstrated with workers outside the annual meeting of the National Chicken Council.
  • We have filed shareholder resolutions with Tyson and Sanderson to increase transparency in their worker safety reporting—important information for investors to have.
  • We are reaching out to various agencies of the federal government and urging them to implement policies for greater oversight and stricter safety standards. We have met with Members of Congress, White House staff, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the US Department of Agriculture.

And the great news is that we are already seeing signs of progress:

  • The report and campaign have attracted the attention of some of the top food advocates in the country, including Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, Danielle Nierenberg, and chef Mary Sue Milliken.
  • On October 23, Tyson Foods announced pay increases for a third of its workers—34,000 employees in more than 50 plants across the U.S.
  • On October 26, Tyson Foods announced a pilot project to improve worker health and safety, with a focus on worker communication and data-gathering.
  • On October 26, OSHA announced a new Regional Emphasis Program to monitor the poultry industry in southern states of the US. In their statement, they noted: “’The Regional Emphasis Program is designed to reduce employee exposure to crippling injuries, such as musculoskeletal disorders, and to ensure the industry records all occupational injuries and illnesses accurately,’ said Kurt Petermeyer, OSHA’s regional administrator in Atlanta.”
  • On October 29, the U.S. Poultry & Egg Association announced updated ergonomics in the poultry & egg industry supervisor training program.
  • On October 30, fifteen Members of Congress signed onto a letter to OSHA urging action on problems in the poultry industry.

These are important advances, with the potential to make a real difference for thousands of workers.

But we have a long way to go.  Poultry companies must do more to protect the health and safety of their employees, provide fair compensation, and ensure that workers’ rights are respected.  Most importantly, they must make these commitments public and measure progress openly and transparently.

Consumers have already pushed the poultry industry to improve the treatment of their chickens, reduce the use of antibiotics, and improve food safety. Now it’s time to focus on the workers who are responsible for bringing the chicken to our plates.

Poultry companies have an obligation to improve conditions for its employees. The government has the responsibility to enact and enforce greater oversight. And consumers have the power to speak out and push for changes. We invite you to learn more, get engaged, and take action.

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