Oxfam report highlights poultry worker conditions

By Chloe Ryan

- Last updated on GMT

An Oxfam America report has highlighted the poor working conditions in the poultry industry
An Oxfam America report has highlighted the poor working conditions in the poultry industry

Related tags Occupational safety and health Poultry

Poultry workers in the USA suffer extremely high rates of injury, earn poverty level wages, and work in a climate of fear, Oxfam America has claimed in a damning new report.

Oxfam’s report, Lives on the Line​, examined plant conditions that lead to illness and injuries. “Poultry workers are among the most vulnerable and exploited workers in the US,”​ said Ray Offenheiser, president of Oxfam America. “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 cited dozens of medical studies and government studies that documented how the fast pace of the processing line and more than 20,000 cutting, pulling, and hanging motions per worker per day contributed to musculoskeletal injuries. Poultry workers suffered carpal tunnel syndrome seven times more often than workers in all other industries; they suffered occupational illnesses at five times the rate, the report claimed.

The report cited examples of worker injuries, such as the decision by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in September to fine Pilgrim’s Pride $46,825 for preventable safety violations after three employees suffered serious injuries, one of which included the amputation of a worker’s three fingers.

Tyson Foods, Pilgrim’s, Perdue, and Sanderson Farms control 60% of the poultry market and supply most of the major retail and food service outlets in America. According to the report, in the last four years, compensation for the chief executive and chairman of Sanderson Farms rose 200% to $5.9 million, and the stock price of Tyson increased 82% in one year. Meanwhile the value of wages for poultry workers has declined almost 40% since the 1980s.

Four days before the launch of Oxfam’s campaign, Tyson Foods announced it would increase hourly pay for one-third of its workforce, about 34,000 employees to $10 per hour up from the previous rate of between $8 and $9 per hour.

In addition to calling for better pay, more toilet breaks and greater tolerance of worker organisation, the report called on the federal government to provide greater oversight of the industry and for consumers to push processors to improve conditions. “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 Program.

“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 momentum for change will continue to build as growing numbers of consumers stay committed to see real change for those who prepare our food.”

Following the release of the report, the National Chicken Council said huge strides had been made in the past 20 years in improving working conditions, and the poultry industry had worked closely with the OSHA to develop guidelines to protect against of workplace injuries and illnesses, especially musculoskeletal disorders like carpal tunnel syndrome.

“The incidence of occupational injuries and illnesses within the poultry sector’s slaughter and processing workforce has fallen by 80% in the last 20 years and continues to decline. In fact, poultry processing’s injury and illness rate of 4.5 is on par with all manufacturing jobs and is decreasing at a much faster rate. In fact, when comparing apples to apples, which Oxfam neglected to do, poultry processing’s rate is much lower than all animal slaughtering and processing, and lower than all food manufacturing in general,”​ said a spokesperson.

“But while the past 20 years has seen a dramatic decrease in the numbers and rates of injury and illnesses occurring in the industry, the poultry industry will continue to seek new and innovative ways to protect our workforce. It is unfortunate that Oxfam portrays an undeserved negative image of the entire poultry industry despite our outstanding record of improvement in employee health and safety, particularly over the past three decades.”

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