Yesterday was a notable one in the efforts to improve working conditions for U.S. poultry processing workers. At a Perdue chicken processing plant in Salisbury, Maryland, faith leaders and worker advocates delivered some special packages to company officials. Thirteen hundred miles way in Springdale, Arkansas, the U.S. largest poultry company announced new initiatives to improve conditions for its poultry processing workforce. I tip my hat to the diverse coalition of worker advocates who set the stage for these event. More on their contribution below, but first the story from Salisbury, Maryland.
The demonstration was organized by Oxfam America and the Comité de Apoyo a Los Trabajadores Agrícolas. The demonstrators held signs that read: "We stand with poultry workers to improve working conditions," and "Jobs on the line shouldn't put lives on the line," and "I love chicken. I love justice."
Their demand to Perdue is to implement changes in their poultry plants to ensure their employees earn fair wages and are protected from injuries. A Perdue official met demonstrators outside the plant gates. Alex Galimberti with Oxfam America spoke to the official:
"We are calling on Perdue to listen to the concerns of workers and advocates to improve working conditions in all of your plants. We appreciate you coming here to meet with us. We would like to give you these petitions and hope that we can continue the dialogue.”
The Perdue representative accepted the tall stack of familiar yellow Styrofoam packages. Instead of raw chicken, they held the names of more than 100,000 consumers.
Perdue employs 20,000 workers at locations in 10 states. Very few of its workers are represented by a labor union.
At just about the same time but in Springdale, Arkansas, Tyson Foods made an announcement. The U.S. largest poultry processing company said that worker health and safety is going to be integral to their goal of sustainable food production. The company’s COO released a statement saying:
“We believe sustainability is about continuous improvement and solutions that last, and this includes a healthier workplace.”
I've been skeptical of firms that tout their sustainability efforts because typically they focus on protection of natural resources but exclude the work environment. Former OSHA chief David Michaels, just before leaving office, urged employers to integrate occupational health and safety within their business sustainability program and metrics. In December 2016, Michaels joined with another former OSHA director, John Henshaw, to write:
“Organizations cannot be sustainable without protecting the safety, health and welfare of their most vital resource: workers. Currently, workplace safety and health may be acknowledged in sustainability strategies, but its importance is rarely emphasized.”
Is this what Tyson Foods has in mind? The statement they released yesterday includes a number of promises to its poultry plant workers, such as reducing worker injuries and turnover, hiring more trainers, and publicly sharing the results of third-party social responsibility compliance audits. Tyson describes these changes as part of its focus on sustainability.
But Tyson saying something is quite different from Tyson doing it and doing it well. Poultry companies have a long, troubling record of employees suffering from disabling musculoskeletal disorders like carpal tunnel syndrome and other injuries. I’ve written previously about Tyson's alarming number of amputations. (I've probably written three dozen blog posts about other safety problems in U.S. poultry plants.)
Tyson Foods says it wants to reduce injuries by 15 percent per year. What it must not do to achieve that goal is engage in recordkeeping gimmicks and medical management practices that distort the truth about worker injuries. Too many companies, especially poultry companies, game the injury recordkeeping system to deceive the public about working conditions.
Tyson has also racked up hundreds of thousands of unpaid OSHA penalties for safety violations. When a company routinely challenges OSHA findings, I can’t help but be wonder whether their safety talk is just lip service.
One thing Tyson could do immediately is to cooperate with OSHA on a corporate wide settlement agreement in which they commit to fix the hazards identified by OSHA----and fix them in each and every one of their plants.
But I'm an outsider. I'm not privy to Tyson's sincerity about these commitments. A number of groups however have been talking with leadership at Tyson Foods. They are pleased with the company’s announcement.
The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) applauded Tyson for their pledge to create and expand initiatives on safety, compensation, and transparency. The union’s president Marc Perrone said:
“Tyson Foods’ commitment to worker safety and workers’ rights should not just be applauded -- it should serve as a model for the rest of the industry,”
Magaly Licolli, the director of the Northwest Arkansas Workers’ Justice Center (NWAWJC) is optimistic, too. NWAWJC is a worker-led organization whose membership includes employees at Tyson poultry plants. She remarked:
“We have high hopes for this announcement from Tyson. We’ll be engaging the workers to be watchful about changes, to report to us and our partner organizations, and to continue speaking out about the reality inside the plants. We know these are longstanding problems, and they won’t be solved overnight, but this is a very positive sign that Tyson is moving to set a new standard for the industry.”
The UFCW and NWAWJC are part of a coalition of advocates who have been collaborating since 2012 to improve working conditions for poultry and meatpacking workers. Other groups in the coalition include the Southern Poverty Law Center, Nebraska Appleseed, Oxfam America, the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, and Interfaith Worker Justice.
These organizations and others began coordinating efforts five years ago to vigorously oppose the USDA’s plan to allow poultry plants to increase line speeds from 140 to 175 birds per minute. Since then---individually and collectively---the groups have issued reports, prepared petitions, briefed lawmakers, and held press calls and protests.
Like the UFCW, Oxfam America staff have also met with Tyson Food officials. Their conversations took place following the release of Oxfam's report "Lives on the Line: the Human Cost of Cheap Chicken" and accompanying social media campaign. Last year, Oxfam published an attention-getting report called "No Relief" about poultry workers being denied bathroom breaks. A hard-hitting two-minute Oxfam video calls on consumers to demand humane working conditions from the country's four major poultry companies: Tyson Foods, Pilgrim's Pride, Perdue, and Sanderson Farms. Oxfam's video is one I show to my students. In fact, I used it in class on Tuesday night.
I’ve no doubt that the negative publicity caused Tyson to pay attention.
My colleague Peter Dooley with the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health and I were talking yesterday about both the Tyson announcement and the demonstration at the Perdue plant. Peter’s been around the block a few times fighting corporate giants who treat workers as disposable cogs in production. I asked for his view on whether the poultry worker coalition has made a difference.
“There's no question that the diverse group of organizations has had an incredible impact on how important worker rights are to a more just world.”
And ever the optimist of the power of good over greed, he added:
“The sky is the limit for how much this movement with poultry and meatpacking workers will continue to feed the fight for social justice for all."
Peter and I agree that neither the event at Perdue yesterday nor the announcement by Tyson Foods would have occurred without the coalition's efforts. Attention alone doesn't solve the problem of unfair and dangerous working conditions, but it’s a vital step.
A key player in that coalition's work has been Oliver Gottfried, senior campaign strategist at Oxfam. About Tyson's announcement he said:
“This development shows that we’re seeing a new awareness about the workers who bring us our food. They deserve respect and dignity, and healthful conditions. We are immensely grateful to consumers and the organizations who’ve been working on behalf of poultry workers for years. The momentum for change will continue to build as growing numbers of consumers stay committed to see real change."
Food writer Mark Bittman said:
"Like so many food workers, poultry workers are among the hardest-working, worst-paid people in our workforce. ...If Tyson is truly committed to their promises for higher wages, safer conditions, and better worker engagement in decision-making – it will set new standards for the industry as a whole. When they deliver on this, they’ll deserve kudos; meanwhile, it’s important to continue to pressure them and make sure they keep to their promises."
And co-president of A Better Balance Dina Bakst said:
"We urge Tyson to effectively implement these commitments, and for the rest of the industry to follow suit. We also urge Tyson and the rest of the industry to take action on providing job-protected paid sick days that workers can use for themselves and their families, an issue that Tyson so far has only said it will study. Paid sick days promote worker health as well as public health through avoiding food contamination and the spread of sickness to other workers. ABB is proud to be a part of a coalition of advocacy groups and worker centers that are pushing the poultry industry to treat its workers fairly, and we will continue to push for positive change.”
I'd say these reactions to Tyson's announcement as encouraged but with a good dose of healthy skepticism.
For more than five years, a small, diverse coalition of labor and human rights groups have raised awareness about unsafe and unjust treatment of poultry workers. I've been part of the coalition and proud of each group's contributions. Change is possible and as Peter Dooley says: "the sky's the limit."
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If I could be sure that the employees who process my chicken were treated decently (living wage, bathroom breaks, good safety practices) then I would happily pay twice as much for my chicken.
Since I can't be sure of that I've just cut way back on how much chicken I eat.
If there were *any* good actors in this industry I would be happy to patronize them, just like I changed my shrimp-buying habits after last year's AP investigation about slavery in the shrimp industry.
The packaging tells me how the chickens were treated, why not how the workers are treated?