Politics of Poverty

Ruffling feathers to prevent more harm to workers in the US poultry industry

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77 percent of poultry workers in line jobs reported cumulative trauma disorders in their hands and wrists, according to a 2013 survey by Southern Poverty Law Center and Alabama Appleseed. Photo: NAACP http://bit.ly/1BzHHnW

Working in poultry plants is dangerous, unhealthy, and precarious.

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.

Next time you open a package of plastic-wrapped chicken – from the skinless breasts to the skinny wings to the plump broiler – consider the hands that are required to package it up: the people who kill it, pluck it, scrape it, skin it, slice it, pack it.

All of this work is done in conditions that are favorable to processing dead birds (cold, humid, dark), but not to accommodating live humans. No matter how industrialized the process has become, people still have to handle these birds.

Unacceptable: The current state of poultry work in the US

The American poultry industry employs more than 200,000 people, predominantly women, people of color, and immigrants. The pay is low – wages average $9-$10 per hour – and injury rates are extremely high, with poultry workers suffering injuries at more than twice the national average and often being left with debilitating, life-long conditions.

Yet, believe it or not, it could be worse. And it almost was. In 2012, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) proposed a new regulation to “modernize” the poultry industry. Among its many provisions was an increase in poultry processing line speed: from 140 birds per minute (already too fast, and part of the reason for the high rate of repetitive strain injuries) to 175 birds per minute (25 percent faster). The industry was asking to be allowed to squeeze workers even harder.

This led Oxfam America’s Decent Work Program to get involved in the struggle to defend these workers’ rights and well-being. Along with a coalition that included worker safety advocates, consumer groups, and food safety advocates, we pushed back against the proposed new rule and elevated the voices of the poultry workers themselves. In February, we helped lead a delegation of workers to Washington DC from the top poultry-producing states (Alabama, North Carolina, Arkansas, and Mississippi). They met directly with Members of Congress and top Administration officials in the White House, USDA, and the Department of Labor. The workers who would be affected by the new rule told their wrenching stories of working on the poultry processing lines, and what the increase in speed would mean every day on the floor.

Which do you want first? The good news or bad?

The good news is that, eventually, the Administration listened on the issue of line speed. In finalizing the regulation last week, the USDA dropped the provision that would have allowed companies to increase poultry processing 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.

But the bad news is that the final USDA poultry industry regulations brought plenty of dicey provisions. The rule contained no measures to help alleviate health and safety risks for poultry workers (who still don’t have any industry-specific standards to protect them), and no changes were made to the potentially-dangerous food safety provisions of the regulation. There will now be a dramatic reduction in the number of Federal food inspectors on processing lines (who each must already inspect 2-3 birds per second and is itself a dangerous job), and the other Federal inspectors will be replaced by untrained company employees.

Is status quo a success or failure?

So how do you evaluate the end result when it is a continuation of an already unacceptable situation? Sure, we can celebrate that the Administration listened to the poultry workers who face already-dangerous line speeds that now won’t be permitted to increase. But we also pledge to keep working for more substantial measures by the government and the poultry industry to address health and safety concerns for poultry workers. This is precisely what Oxfam plans to do, as we focus on the rights of everyone in the US to a decent living, especially those who work in the most arduous and low-paying jobs in our country.

This means continuing to think about the people who slice the breast off the bone and wrap it up. But it also means considering the people who pick and pack our strawberries in the clamshell packaging; serve our cup of coffee at the fast food restaurant; and stock the shelves at our local supermarket. These workers are all around us. We, as a nation, depend on them each day.

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