The High Human Cost of Cheap Chicken

Photograph courtesy of John D. Simmons / The Charlotte Observer

Editor's note: as part of our ongoing Meatrix action campaign, we joined Oxfam America in calling our audience to demand fair, safe working conditions for poultry workers. Mary Babic, Communications Officer for Oxfam America, wrote the following post to describe her organization's critical work on this issue.

Consumers like you have the power to change a booming poultry industry that treats its workers as disposable commodities.

Chicken is the most popular meat in America, at a per capita consumption of nearly 90 pounds a year. And the poultry industry is booming: profits are soaring, executive compensation is skyrocketing, and the array of poultry products expands daily.

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But one element remains trapped at the bottom: the poultry workers who stand on the lines in cold plants every day, hanging and trimming and cutting and packaging those convenient products. They earn low wages of diminishing value, suffer extremely high rates of injuries and illness, and endure a climate of fear inside the plants.

In 2015, Oxfam America, together with a broad coalition of organizations, launched a campaign to expose the dirty secret in the poultry industry: the high human cost of cheap chicken. We're rallying consumers to call on the top four poultry producers - Tyson Foods, Pilgrim's, Perdue and Sanderson Farms - to pay their workers fairly, ensure their safety and give them a greater voice in the workplace.

Backing this campaign is Oxfam's report, Lives on the Line, based on research and interviews with poultry workers about the grueling conditions they endure day after day in plants that are cold, wet, and dangerous. Most of the workers - considered disposable commodities by the industry - are minorities, immigrants, refugees and even prisoners.

Crippling Injuries

Working in a poultry plant is arduous and dangerous. Workers commonly suffer injuries and illnesses from the thousands of repetitive motions they perform every day. They process around 30 birds every minute: nearly 2,000 chickens each hour and over 14,000 chickens each day.

poultry worker

A Latino poultry worker in Montgomery, Ala. repeatedly hangs recently slaughtered, de-feathered chickens on the constantly moving poultry line. Once they are de-feathered, the chickens are plunged into nearly freezing water to cool; the temperature in the processing rooms hovers around 40 degrees. Photo: Earl Dotter/Oxfam America

By one conservative estimate, workers carry out the same motion more than 20,000 times a day. Repetitive strain injuries, with swelling, numbness and loss of grip, are the inevitable result. The injuries can be long-lasting and sometimes permanent.

"As soon as the first shift leaves, around six o'clock, that's when it speeds up and starts to get hard. You can't stand the pain in your shoulders, your hands because of that repetitive movement," said one poultry worker Oxfam interviewed in North Carolina.

"There are some people with hands so swollen that their gloves don't fit," another North Carolina worker said.

Two Cents on the Dollar

For every dollar consumers spend on McDonald's Chicken McNuggets, only about two cents goes to workers in the processing plants - an amount that looks even smaller when compared to what the top executives earn. In the last four years, the chairman of the board at Tyson Foods has seen his pay skyrocket by 260 percent to $8.8 million.

The typical poultry worker earns a fraction of that: wages average about $11 an hour (about $440 for a 40-hour work week). Over the course of an 8-hour workday in 2014, the CEO of Sanderson Farms made the entire average annual salary of a line worker.

Climate of Fear

Still, most workers are reluctant, or afraid, to speak out about the speed of the line and the injury rates. Many workers are undocumented; companies may take advantage of their tenuous immigration status through harassment, discrimination and even threats of deportation.

 "[The companies] keep a climate of fear where the employees believe that at any moment they can and will be fired," said Mary Goff, a former staff attorney with Legal Aid of Arkansas. "Then they are able to treat people as a commodity that can be done away with when they want."

What Can You Do?

As a consumer, your voice counts. Companies have listened to concerns about how chickens are treated and the safety of food; the result has been reduced use of antibiotics and an increase in cage-free hens. They'll listen when you speak up for the ethical treatment of workers as well.

We're not asking you to stop eating chicken. But do learn what it takes to bring it to your plate - and then tell Big Poultry to treat its workers right. Sign the petition calling on the top four companies to provide a safe working environment, offer fair pay and benefits and give their workers a voice.

Guest posts are contributed by (you guessed it!) guest contributors and the views and opinions expressed within them do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Ecocentric blog or GRACE Communications Foundation.