In an in-depth piece written by Tess Owens of Vice News, workers in the chicken industry describe conditions so horrible, it might make you think twice before plopping more chicken on your plate.
Currently, Americans are eating more chicken than ever before—30 percent more than they were two decades ago. As it goes, because of this increase in demand, production levels need to go up. This means that line workers in huge poultry processing plants—like those of Tyson Foods, Perdue Farms, Sanderson Farms, and Pilgrim's Pride—are feeling the pressure to work not only harder, but insurmountably faster.
According to a new Oxfam America report, their production speed needs to be so fast, in fact, that many are reporting that bathroom breaks are nearly impossible to take:
“Different plants and departments have varying rules when it comes to bathroom breaks, but the overall consensus among poultry workers surveyed seems to be that leaving the production line to use the restroom is a privilege, not a right. If a worker need to go, someone has to replace them on the line until they come back. Workers say finding a replacement can take up to an hour. Sometimes, they say, a replacement never arrives.”
To avoid accidents while waiting for a replacement or until their 30 minute lunch break, many have resorted to wearing diapers.
"I had to wear Pampers," one worker told Oxfam. "I, and many, many others had to wear Pampers."
A separate 2013 report also found that some workers were only allowed five minute bathroom breaks. While for some that may sound reasonable, workers need to strip off their gear before using the bathroom, so many described ripping off their gear while running through plant floors that are covered in fat, blood, water, and other liquids as "an embarrassing but necessary action to meet the strict five-minute time limit.”
Factory managers reportedly go so far as to tell workers not to drink water so they won’t have to go to the bathroom.
"It's not just [workers'] dignity that suffers: they are in danger of serious health problems," the report notes, adding that UTI’s are a real concern among workers—especially those that are pregnant. This is especially true since workers have been known to “build up antibiotic resistance that complicates their recovery from infection” due to the “industry's pervasive use of antibiotics in chicken.”
"Coordinating restroom breaks in the workplace is certainly not unique to the chicken industry," The National Chicken Council — a trade association representing the US poultry industry — said in a statement. "Whether it's a cashier, bus driver, bartender, bank teller, or just about any manufacturing job, there are practices in place related to restroom breaks that are clearly outlined to the employee."
To make matters worse, those most susceptible to these conditions are "marginalized and vulnerable populations."
The report states that "of roughly 250,000 poultry workers, most are people of color, immigrants, or refugees," many of them hailing from countries such as Myanmar, Sudan, or Somalia who were then employed through resettlement programs in the U.S.
Deborah Berkowitz, a former OSHA official (now a senior fellow at the National Employment Law Project) wrote in an op-ed that explained it would take over “100 years for the nation's understaffed worker-safety agency to visit every workplace just once.”
But every worker deserves to do their job with dignity and safely, don’t they?
When Owens reached out for a comment from these four main poultry companies, she either was told they “never heard complaints” from their workers or they simply declined to comment.
The meat industry has their fair share of problems—that has always been a fact. But the question remains: when are Americans going to take these concerns seriously and advocate with workers and for animals for fair, healthy, and safe treatment?
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