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Report: Poultry Plant Workers Face Grim Working Conditions

Courtesy Oxfam America
Line workers at the nation's largest poultry processors are routinely denied bathroom breaks, according to a new report from Oxfam America.

Thousands of chainmail-clad workers with knives and hooks keep a modern poultry plant running, churning out the millions of pounds of poultry we eat every year. The job is difficult and demanding, especially for line employees who make the same motion for hours, struggling to keep up with a fast-moving disassembly line.

A new report from Oxfam America paints an even bleaker picture.

The anti-poverty group says those line workers at the four largest poultry companies -- Pilgrim’s Pride, Tyson Foods, Sanderson Farms, and Perdue Farms -- are routinely denied bathroom breaks, forcing some to wear adult diapers to work and others to urinate on themselves to avoid retribution from supervisors.

After interviewing dozens of workers at the four companies, Oxfam’s report, titled No Relief: Denial of Bathroom Breaks in the Poultry Industry, paints the picture of a widespread problem, where basic worker needs are denied in service of producing vast amounts of cheap, processed chicken.

“The most basic thing like the right to go to the bathroom, the right to relieve yourself, is being routinely denied by these companies for their workers on the line,” says Minor Sinclair, a program director with Oxfam America.

Representatives from both Tyson Foods and Perdue Farms questioned the validity of the study, and in comments included in Oxfam America’s report said employees have a number of options when reporting a workplace grievance, like calling an anonymous tip line or contacting a human resources representative.

“The health and welfare of our associates is paramount and we take these types of allegations very seriously,” reads a Perdue statement included in the Oxfam America report. “The anecdotes reported are not consistent with Perdue’s policies and practices. Unfortunately, we do not have enough information to investigate the validity of these complaints.”

For its part, Tyson Foods told Oxfam America that it is currently undergoing an audit, performed by an outside third party, to assess worker conditions at its plants.

While a response from Pilgrim’s Pride was not included in the final report, a company spokesman says its plant supervisors are instructed to allow line workers to take unscheduled breaks, including bathroom breaks, during their shifts.

“We have not surveyed our team members regarding bathroom breaks specifically, but have had numerous team member satisfaction surveys over the last several years, including most recently, a Safety Culture survey in 2015,” Pilgrim’s Pride spokesman Cameron Bruett says. “However, the survey did provide an opportunity to raise additional concerns and bathroom breaks were never mentioned.”

Oxfam contends that many current and former poultry workers are living in different conditions than those laid out by the companies themselves. Researchers with the group found workers that said they urinate and defecate while standing on the line; they wear diapers to work; they restrict intake of fluids to dangerous degrees.

Many of the workers included in the report are anonymous or pseudonymous to allow them to speak more freely, Oxfam America says. The group based its report on interviews with dozens of workers throughout the country conducted from 2013 to 2016. Representatives from Oxfam America say workers at unionized processing plants rarely reported bathroom breaks being denied, but about two-thirds of the poultry workforce is not unionized, according to the report.

Most of the country’s large-scale chicken processing takes place in a large swathe of southern U.S. states, from eastern Texas through Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia,Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia. 

As KUNC’s reporter covering the Colorado River Basin, I dig into stories that show how water issues can both unite and divide communities throughout the Western U.S. I produce feature stories for KUNC and a network of public media stations in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, California and Nevada.