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US Poultry Industry Under Fire for Poor Working Conditions

28 October 2015

US - The charity Oxfam America has called on top poultry companies in the US to commit to workers' rights, following its report into industry conditions released yesterday.

Oxfam America said in the report that poultry workers in the US suffer extremely high rates of injury, earn poverty level wages, and work in a climate of fear.

The report is part of Oxfam’s new nationwide campaign that rallies consumers to call on the nation’s largest poultry companies - Tyson Foods, Pilgrim’s, Perdue, and Sanderson Farms - to treat workers with fairness and dignity.

Vulnerable workforce

Entitled 'Lives on the Line', the report examines the hazardous plant conditions, elevated rates of illness and injuries and the industry's use of marginalised population sectors in the workforce. Most of the roughly 250,000 poultry workers are minorities, immigrants, and refugees, and a significant number are women.

“Poultry workers are among the most vulnerable and exploited workers in the United States,” said Ray Offenheiser, President of Oxfam America.

“The industry is booming, profits are climbing, but poultry workers remain trapped at the bottom. Oxfam believes the consumer has tremendous power to put pressure on these companies to change their unfair policies and ensure that workers can assert their rights without fear of retribution.”

The report cites medical and government studies that document how the pace of the processing line and the repetitive motions of workers contribute to musculoskeletal injuries. Oxfam said that poultry workers suffer carpal tunnel syndrome seven times more often than workers in all other industries; they suffer occupational illnesses at five times the rate.

Despite industry claims that injury rates are dropping significantly, Oxfam’s report contends that official government injury statistics likely undercount the true rate of injury by a significant margin. The report cites OSHA, the GAO, and others that have found extensive evidence of many plants deliberately underreporting injuries.

Improving pay

Tyson foods recently announced it would be increasing pay for poultry plant workers to a starting rate of at least $10 an hour for one-third of its workforce, about 34,000 employees, to help the company improve employee recruitment and retention. 

In a response to Oxfam's report, Tyson said: "While we appreciate Oxfam America’s efforts, we don’t agree with everything in its report, which includes comments from former workers as well as union advocates and other interest groups known for their criticism of our industry. We believe we’re doing the right thing by our Team Members, however, we always push to do better."

“There is a growing community of consumers who are paying attention to where their food is coming from, not only about food safety and the inhumane treatment of animals, but about the people who harvest and process our food, too,” said Minor Sinclair, Director of Oxfam America’s US Programme.

“Tyson's announcement last week to raise the wages for 34,000 poultry workers is a positive step in the compensation of their workforce. But for Tyson as well as Pilgrim's, Sanderson Farms and Perdue, more needs to be done to overcome poverty wages throughout the industry, unsafe working conditions, and little or no voice on the job."

The Oxfam campaign aims to harness consumer concern to influence the top US poultry companies to change practices.

Further Reading

You can view the full report by clicking here.

ThePoultrySite News Desk

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