Politics of Poverty

The fear behind that cheap chicken

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One worker center in a poultry town engaged workers in mapping out the dangers in the poultry plant (mapa de peligros). The hazards include heat, cold, and chemicals, as well as harassment from supervisors, and sexual abuse. (Photo: Leah Varsano / Oxfam America)

Advocates for poultry workers in the US have long reported on the “climate of fear” inside the plants that keeps workers from blowing the whistle on all manner of abuse. Recently, the federal government confirmed our findings, and called for proactive moves from OSHA and FSIS to protect workers.

Leah Varsano is a Program Specialist with the US Domestic Program at Oxfam America.

Late last year, the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report about the need to protect workers at meat and poultry plants. The GAO spoke with workers in five states to gather data; the result is a snapshot of an industry governed by fear, where workers are too afraid to speak up even while they continue to experience hazardous working conditions that endanger their health and safety. Poultry companies get away with serious human rights violations because of this, while raking in record profits. And for consumers, the cost of that $6.99 whole chicken at the supermarket has been subsidized by this fear.

The GAO report surprises no one. Ask any worker in the poultry industry about their experience in the workplace, and sooner or later they’ll mention one dominant emotion: fear. Workers are afraid of many things. They fear retaliation from supervisors and plant managers; they fear sexual harassment; they fear losing their jobs; they fear becoming seriously hurt or disabled; they may even fear deportation ­– a wrenching away from their current lives and a painful separation from their loved ones.

Their fears are far from baseless; many workers have experienced, or witnessed, significant worker mistreatment, and the stakes – one’s livelihood, paycheck, and wellbeing – could not be higher. Oxfam has spoken with poultry workers of various races, backgrounds, nationalities, and ethnicities, and fear is the universal thread that strings them all together.

Seth Mock, a former meatpacking worker in Nebraska who immigrated to the US as a Sudanese refugee when he was 16 years old, told Oxfam how fear impacted his family’s experiences in the plants. “When you’re a refugee, you already feel like you’re a second-class citizen. The fear is that when you express yourself, you lose what you have, or you’ll be a target. You just want to hide it inside… There’s countless times you’re told that there are so many other folks that will get your job, in case you complained. There was someone in line,” says Seth.

One woman, a Somali refugee in Minnesota (name withheld for her safety), experienced ongoing sexual assault while working at a plant owned by Pilgrim’s Pride. When she complained to plant administration about her assailant’s behavior, she was fired. Staff at the Greater Minnesota Worker Center know of other women at the same plant also experiencing sexual harassment and assault, but who are now too worried about losing their jobs to speak up.

The workers from both these refugee communities are in this country legally, but many are unaware of their rights or the resources available to them. The message they internalize from the industry is clear: workers are expendable at any time, for any reason.

At a recent gathering of the National Council on Occupational Safety and Health, factory workers from numerous industries, union stewards, worker center employees, lawyers, and staff from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) all agreed that fear was the single most significant barrier that kept workers from reporting their injuries. Who is most likely to speak out? American-born workers and unionized workers, who are more likely to know their rights and feel empowered to act on them.

By contrast, the poultry workforce is much less unionized than the beef and pork industries (roughly a third of all poultry workers are represented by unions). And the industry increasingly turns to immigrants to fill these arduous and dangerous jobs.

Workers are on the front lines of any industry; they have firsthand knowledge of many problems (e.g., unsafe conditions, workplace injuries, malfunctioning equipment, abusive supervisors). If poultry companies were to encourage a culture of fairness and accountability, they would find that workers are their best resources in solving the challenges they face.

Instead, poultry companies maintain an environment that prioritizes faster speeds, greater production, and minimal lost work days. Maximizing speed means that supervisors and managers must continuously make decisions that undercut workers’ wellness and safety, and in-plant medical practitioners are compelled to provide less than adequate care.

When workers are too afraid to report their own injuries, poultry companies emerge with injury data that dangerously misrepresent the industry.

The GAO report affirms what workers, unions, and worker centers (and Oxfam) have been saying for years. Among their findings:

  • Workers said they were denied access to a bathroom during work hours, and were too fearful to speak about the situation with OSHA, or with their supervisors.
  • Workers said they feared dismissal or punishment if they reached out to OSHA to report a safety violation in their workplace, or told plant management about injuries, illnesses, and hazards.
  • Workers feared dismissal after reporting to the first aid station with a musculoskeletal disorder (MSD) or another injury or illness.

The GAO recommends that OSHA and the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) ensure worker interviews are an integral part of future monitoring and inspections. Oxfam supports this approach, and further demands that the entire poultry industry take proactive measures to increase workers’ safety, and create workplaces where workers are comfortable reporting hazardous conditions.

The true cost of America’s favorite protein is much too high.

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