By Roger Kerson, United Steelworks
As Americans from coast-to-coast prepare for Thanksgiving, worker advocates are calling on CEOs of America’s largest poultry companies to raise wages, improve safety conditions and guarantee fair treatment for workers who help feed millions of American families.
Three advocacy organizations – Interfaith Worker Justice, the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (National COSH) and the Western North Carolina Workers Center – today released copies of letters to:
- Jim Perdue, CEO of Perdue Farms, Salisbury, MD
- Joe F. Sanderson, CEO of Sanderson Farms, Laurel, MS
- Bill Lovette, President and CEO of Pilgrim’s Pride, Greeley, CO
Advocates cite low wages with scant benefits; high rates of injury among poultry workers; and a climate of fear and intimidation inside poultry plants as conditions that require immediate attention.
“We are the workers who make the holidays happen,” said Omar Hassan, a former employee at a turkey processing plant in Minnesota. A Somali immigrant, Hassan was discharged after suffering an on-the-job injury. “We are treated as if we are disposable; all of us should be valued for our work.”
Poultry workers earn low wages, with real value declining by almost 40 percent since the 1980s.
Poultry workers suffer extremely high rates of injury, especially repetitive strain injuries. The rate of carpal tunnel syndrome for poultry workers is seven times higher than the national average.
Many poultry workers are afraid to speak up and advocate for better conditions. The industry has a history of hiring immigrant workers and others from vulnerable populations, using intimidation tactics to interfere with workplace rights. “Employees believe at any moment they can and will be fired,” says an attorney familiar with industry conditions.
Just prior to the release of Oxfam’s October 2015 report, Lives on the Line, Tyson Foods, a major poultry processor, announced an initiative to raise wages. In addition, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has announced a new regional emphasis to investigate unsafe working conditions in the poultry processing industry.
“Tyson has made a first start, but this process is by no means finished. The company must do much more to meet the needs of its workers and live up to its core values,” said Rudy Lopez, executive director of Interfaith Worker Justice. “The other major firms in the industry – Perdue, Sanderson and Pilgrim’s – haven’t budged an inch. We hope consumers take note of that.”
“OSHA’s regional emphasis on poultry, with more comprehensive inspections in the workplaces where so many injuries take place, is a step in the right direction,” said Jessica Martinez, acting executive director of National COSH. “But it only covers 10 southern states, even though there are poultry plants all over the country. We need to focus on health and safety for all workers, no matter where they live and work.”
“Consumers have already had a big impact on the poultry industry, by expressing a preference for less antibiotics and more free range birds,” said Hunter Ogletree of the Western North Carolina Workers’ Center. “When we gather with our families next week, let’s give thanks to the people who bring food to our tables – and raise our voices to raise industry standards.”
Consumers can sign an online petition calling for higher wages, improved safety and fair treatment in the poultry industry at the upper right “Take Action” tab on Oxfam America’s website here.