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Esther Cepeda: The steep price of cheap chicken

Esther Cepeda
Esther Cepeda 12/15/10

This week, Oxfam America released a grim profile of working conditions in chicken-processing plants. “Lives on the Line: The Human Cost of Cheap Chicken” describes a harsh and often-dangerous workplace for the industry’s 250,000 employees. The harrowing report should be read by every one of this country’s chicken consumers, who on average each eat an estimated 89 pounds of chicken annually.

In what Oxfam America’s U.S. regional director, Minor Sinclair, calls “a disposable workforce strategy,” industry employees have been pushed to the limits of human physical capacity for repetitive manual labor. The speed of processing chickens on the line has increased from 70 birds per minute in 1979, to 91 in 1999, to 140 today. For this, a full-time factory worker’s annual wages average about $20,000 to $25,000 per year, or roughly poverty level for a family of three or four.

And plants have turned to the most vulnerable among us – minorities, immigrants, refugees from a variety of countries, and even prisoners – to toil under unsustainable conditions, with little recourse.

I would start a shift at 5 in the afternoon, get a lunch break at 8, then go back to the line for another four, five or six hours – because shifts didn’t end until the supervisor said we were done to meet quotas – and we were not allowed to use the bathroom. We asked supervisors to use the bathroom and they would not let us.

Pedro, chicken-processing worker

At an Oxfam media briefing on the new data, a former worker at a chicken-processing plant in North Carolina said his former employer refused to attend to workers’ physical injuries during shifts or make reasonable accommodations for employees with doctors’ orders to take breaks.

“I was a processing-line worker, and I got my hands injured and my hands swelled bad,” said Pedro, who was speaking under a pseudonym. “I went to the infirmary at the plant, and they said it was nothing to worry about, that I’d get used to it. They gave me extra-large gloves and said to take Motrin and ibuprofen. They had some private doctor that would come on site so the workers wouldn’t go to a regular doctor in the community, and when he finally saw me he said, ‘I’ve never seen an injury as bad as yours.’ 

Pedro also reiterated a complaint commonly voiced by food-processing workers: They aren’t allowed breaks for the bathroom.

“I would start a shift at 5 in the afternoon, get a lunch break at 8, then go back to the line for another four, five or six hours – because shifts didn’t end until the supervisor said we were done to meet quotas – and we were not allowed to use the bathroom,” Pedro said. “We asked supervisors to use the bathroom and they would not let us. I witnessed a lot of people who would pee themselves because they are afraid to leave the line.”

The National Chicken Council issued a sharp rebuke of the charges in Oxfam’s report, but Pedro’s is but one of many detailed accounts.

According to Oxfam’s research, workers – who are on their feet under heavy gear often performing 20,000 to 100,000 repetitive physical tasks per shift such as cutting, pulling and wringing – often either intentionally dehydrate to avoid soiling themselves or resort to wearing diapers.

According to Oxfam’s research, workers – who are on their feet under heavy gear often performing 20,000 to 100,000 repetitive physical tasks per shift such as cutting, pulling and wringing – often either intentionally dehydrate to avoid soiling themselves or resort to wearing diapers.

Countless other inhumane working conditions – work gloves that are inadequate for wet, 45-degree conditions, protection gear that is insufficient for dealing with heavy chemical detergents and sanitizers – are chronicled. The report also describes pervasive incidences of crippling injuries, industry-wide underreporting of injuries and lack of paid sick time for illnesses resulting from work.

There are reasons to hope that raising public awareness of how these workers are treated and underpaid could force industry-wide changes.

Tyson Foods, in addition to announcing Monday the implementation of a new work-safety project, recently raised wages for hourly employees in an effort to attract more workers and retain existing ones. According to Oxfam’s Sinclair, other corporations can make improvements above and beyond higher pay that would make the work more bearable.

“There’s sick pay; we can’t have employees sick on top of raw food, and the line speeds need to be addressed by having more workers or floating workers to enable bathroom breaks,” he said during the news briefing. “You can have job rotations; rest breaks are recommended at nine minutes every hour, and injuries should be recorded, reported and dealt with fairly.”

As part of its campaign, Oxfam has put together an immersive website experience (www.oxfamamerica.org/ livesontheline) to show the conditions that workers are exposed to, and videos of employees describing their jobs.

It’s not for the faint of heart, but it is a good jumping-off point for those interested in making sure our food is ethical to both animals and humans.

Esther Cepeda is a columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.

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