Eat chicken? Oxfam presses Tyson, Pilgrim’s, others to improve conditions for poultry workers

The anti-poverty group Oxfam America wants consumers to help poultry workers. Oxfam is calling on consumers to use their purchasing power to demand better working conditions for the 250,000 individuals who work in US poultry processing plants. The target of their demands? The four firms that control about 60 percent of the poultry market: Tyson, Pilgrim’s, Perdue, and Sanderson Farms.

“Consumers do have power,” explains Minor Sinclair, Director of Oxfam America’s US Program. Consumers have “…pushed through changes in antibiotic policies within the poultry industry. They’ve pushed through improvements for cage-free hens.”

Sinclair adds,

“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.”

Today, Oxfam launched a campaign and released a report “Lives on the line: the human cost of cheap chicken” to draw attention to the low-wages and unsafe working conditions in the $50 billion poultry industry. Tyson and Pilgrim’s control 23 and 19 percent of the market, respectively, while Perdue and Sanderson Farms each control another eight percent.

It’s an “illusion of choice,” Oxfam notes.

“If you buy chicken almost anywhere in the US–in a grocery store, restaurant, or school cafeteria—you are almost certainly buying from one of these companies. The top four companies produce hundreds of different products, and market under at least 30 different brand names. Perdue sells 213 poultry products under their Perdue brand. Tyson sells 97 products under their Tyson brand (and many more under other brands), Pilgrim’s sells 54, and Sanderson Farms sells 49 different products.”

The harsh working conditions described in the Oxfam report and captured in video on its “immersive, multimedia website,” is much the same as we’ve written about (e.g., here, here, here, here) and documented recently by OSHA (e.g., here, here, here). Poultry workers on processing lines makes thousands of repetitive motions each shift to convert whole chickens into the filet, tenders, and nuggets that are so popular in American’s lunch boxes and dinner plates. When poultry workers are injured on-the-job, many are penalized, denied appropriate treatment, and challenged when they file workers’ compensation claims.

Oxfam notes “…most poultry processing workers earn wages that place them near or below the poverty line,” with an average wage of about $11 per hour. Some workers are required to buy their own safety equipment or are not paid for the time they spend putting on and off the required coveralls, smocks, aprons, caps, earplugs, etc.

As is Oxfam’s practice, the four firms named in the report were contacted this summer and invited to hear Oxfam’s findings. Tyson Foods was the only company to respond to Oxfam’s invitation, and also provided a response in writing.

All four firms were also alerted by Oxfam of the report’s release date so I was tickled to read in Friday’s Wall Street Journal of Tyson’s announcement of a pay raise for its hourly workers. Yesterday, there was another announcement by the poultry giant: “Tyson Foods Launches Work Safety Project Under New Leader.”  The firm says:

“…we’ll be continuing efforts to improve workplace health through ergonomics, the science of making the workplace fit the worker.”

And I don’t think it is a coincidence that Tyson also has a new page on its website with big bold letters:

“We believe in a safe and healthy workplace.”

The topics on this new webpage track closely with the themes in Oxfam’s report: safety training, ergonomics, line speeds, rest breaks, job rotation, injury reporting, and medical treatment.

Rather than being skeptical and cynical of Tyson’s reaction to Oxfam’s report, I’m pleased to see it. Somebody at Tyson read the report and respects Oxfam enough to respond in some way to it.

Pilgrim’s, Perdue, and Sanderson Farms have chosen so far to ignore Oxfam. That’s something that all of you chicken eaters can take note.

In the weeks and months ahead, Oxfam and its allies will focus energy on the recommendations contained in its report which are directed at the poultry firms and government agencies. You can stand with poultry workers by signing a petition to Tyson, Pilgrim’s, Perdue, and Sanderson Farms:

I care where my chicken comes from – and I care deeply about the people who help get it to my family’s table. Workers in your factories deserve: Fair pay and benefits, A safe working environment, and A voice in the workplace.

Please implement changes throughout your poultry plants and lead the way in ensuring that your workers have the right to safety, opportunity, and dignity in their labor.

I recently spoke with a poultry worker from South Carolina. She told me, “we don’t want people to boycott chicken. We just want a living wage, a safe workplace, and treated with dignity if we are injured.”