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Report Attacks Conditions in Poultry Plants

18 March 2013

US - A report from the Southern Poverty Law Center has hit out at practices in poultry processing plants that the organisation says are putting workers health at risk.

The law group says that the modern poultry industry in Alabama is an industry unfettered by serious regulation and with a vulnerable workforce that has lacked a voice in the halls of government and has little power to effect change.

The report, Unsafe at These Speeds, presents survey findings and aims to expose how flawed policy, lack of oversight and weak enforcement has allowed thi,s exploitation to thrive. It also offers recommendations to end it.

The report says that in the poultry processing plants in Alabama, "workers stand almost shoulder-to-shoulder as chicken carcases zip by on high-speed processing lines. Together, small teams of workers may hang, gut or slice more than 100 birds in a single minute. It's a process they'll repeat for eight hours or more".

Alabama produces more than 1 billion broilers a year making it the third highes poultry producing state in the US behind Georgia and Arkansas.

The industry in worth $8.5 billion to the state and generates 75,000 jobs making the sector 10 per cent of the state's economy.

"But it all comes at a steep price for the low-paid, hourly workers who face the relentless pressure of the mechanized processing line," the report says.

The Southern Poverty Law Center says that nearly three-quarters of the poultry workers interviewed for the report described suffering some type of significant work-related injury or illness.

"In spite of many factors that lead to undercounting of injuries in poultry plants, the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) reported an injury rate of 5.9 per cent for poultry processing workers in 2010, a rate that is more than 50 per cent higher than the 3.8 per cent injury rate for all US workers," the report says.

"Poultry workers often endure debilitating pain in their hands, gnarled fingers, chemical burns, and respiratory problems - tell-tale signs of repetitive motion injuries, such as carpal tunnel syndrome, and other ailments."

The report criticises the plants for the speed of the lines and says that more than three quarters of the workers interviewed said that the speed makes their work more dangerous.

"It is a predominant factor in the most common type of injuries, called musculoskeletal disorders. But if the line seems to move at a pace designed for machines rather than people, it should come as no surprise. Plant workers, many whom are immigrants, are often treated as disposable resources by their employers. Threats of deportation and firing are frequently used to keep them silent," the report says.

The report adds that workers are discouraged from reporting work-related injuries, enduring constant pain and even choosing to urinate on themselves rather than invite the wrath of a supervisor by leaving the processing line for a restroom break.

The report has been put together by the Southern Poverty Law Center and Alabama Appleseed from interviews with 302 workers currently or previously employed in Alabama's poultry industry.

The report adds that OSHA, which regulates the health and safety of workers in this country, has no set of mandatory guidelines tailored to protect poultry processing workers.

The report also says that the situation could get worse as the US Department of Agriculture is poised to enact a new regulation that will allow poultry companies to increase the speed of the processing line - from a maximum of 140 birds per minute to 175.

The rule is part of the agency's overhaul of its food safety inspection programme.

Further Reading

You can view the full report by clicking here.

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