Debbie Berkowitz is a senior fellow at the National Employment Law Project. She formerly served as chief of staff at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
As you pick up your Thanksgiving turkey this year, you may look to see whether it’s organic, free-range, and humanely raised and slaughtered. What the label won’t tell you is how the men and women in the poultry plant who processed your bird are treated. You may not want to know — but you should.
Poultry production is big business. Poultry is the United States’ most popular meat, and profits are soaring. Earlier this year, Tyson Foods, the largest poultry processor, boasted about its $461 million in profits over a three-month period.
But this wealth is not trickling down to the nation’s 250,000 poultry processing workers — not in terms of higher wages or safer working conditions. Poultry plants are one of the harshest working environments in U.S. manufacturing. In plants across the country, workers stand on both sides of long conveyor belts, in cold, damp, dangerously loud conditions, making the same forceful cuts or movements thousands of times daily. A typical worker handles 40 birds a minute. In the holiday months, workers are putting in eight- to 10-hour days, six to seven days a week, to meet demand.
The work is not only backbreaking, but also dangerous. According to the industry’s self-reported statistics, poultry plant workers are injured at rates almost 50 percent above the national average for all private industry, and workers in poultry plants become ill from unsafe conditions at work at rates seven times higher than workers in other workplaces. (Indeed, the government has found that these statistics are an undercount — the real rate is much higher.) The poultry industry has the 13th-highest number of work-related amputations and hospitalizations of all industries reporting to the government — more than saw mills and the construction industry.
And with new food safety requirements being implemented nationwide, the poultry industry has increased its use of toxic disinfectants — repeatedly dipping poultry into open vats of toxic chemicals in an attempt to kill off pathogens — further endangering workers’ health.
These are workers like V.L. Griffin Jr., who was hired by a poultry plant in Texas and sent to work in the blast freezer, where birds are taken after slaughter. In a lawsuit filed in July, Griffin said that he began to experience frostbite on one of his fingers after the company failed to provide him the required insulated gloves. When he went to the plant’s first-aid office, the nurse told Griffin that he was fine and to get back to work. But his finger became so painful that he took himself to the emergency room a few days later. He was told he had frostbite, and the hospital sent him back to the plant with instructions that he was not to work in the cold and that he be sent to a specialist.
Then, Griffin said, the company put him on the worst jobs in the plant — grabbing live chickens from trucks entering the plant and hanging the birds upside down on an overhead conveyor by shackling their feet. But he couldn’t work with both hands because of the pain in his finger. He repeatedly went to the plant nurse, only to be told that he was getting better. He asked about going to a specialist, as the ER doctors had instructed. The nurse said that the plant was waiting for corporate approval. Finally, Griffin returned to the emergency room, where his finger had to be amputated.
The poultry industry has the distinction of being the only industry in the country where the government found that to keep the lines running, plant managers often deny workers time to use the bathroom. Many workers tell stories about urinating on themselves or wearing diapers to work. At one major company in North Carolina, workers launched a petition to their plant manager demanding their legal right to use the bathroom. Hard to believe this is happening in the United States in 2016 — let alone at a food processing plant.
Poultry processing plants are located in largely rural areas where they seek to hire the nation’s most vulnerable workers. Half of the workers are women, and most are minorities — many immigrants and newly resettled refugees. The industry is widely known to have high turnover — in some plants reaching 100 percent a year — because the work is so physically demanding and the conditions so harsh. There is no paid sick leave in most of these plants. If workers can’t go in because of a work-related illness, they are given points; after accumulating too many, they are fired.
So, when you sit down to Thanksgiving dinner, think about the people who helped bring that turkey to you. It’s possible to know whether the bird was treated humanely — but what about the workers?