Last week in Springdale, Ark., Tyson Foods delivered the good news to shareholders at their annual meeting that 2015 was a banner year for the corporation. The world’s largest poultry processing company saw its net income soar by 49 percent.
On the same day, a new report from the Northwest Arkansas Workers’ Justice Center (NWAWJC) painted a much less rosy picture of the conditions and everyday struggles that face the poultry workers who made all this money for Tyson and the other chicken titans.
Arkansas is home to 28,000 poultry workers who produce more than a tenth of the nation’s broiler hens. In addition to a wide variety of meat products found at Walmart, Kroger, and other grocery stores across the country, the poultry produced by these workers also supplies KFC, McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King, and Taco Bell. Every day, their products feed millions of Americans.
The poultry workforce in Arkansas is multicultural and multinational. White workers make up a large share; in addition, 33 percent are Latino, 17 percent are African-American, and six percent are Asian. The industry is also the largest employer of the Marshallese community in the state, with one recent study finding that up to three-quarters of Marshall Islands immigrants had worked for one of three major poultry companies.
What makes the Workers’ Justice Center’s report especially engaging is its extensive use of perspectives recorded from over 500 poultry workers themselves. Collectively, their words fill in the picture of what really goes on inside this huge industry.
Working in the poultry plants is tough: cutting, deboning, and hanging thousands of chickens as they speed past you down the line. It’s repetitive, it’s messy, and the pressure is always on to work faster. For all this, the poultry workers earn on average $28,792 – at least that’s what the average would be if 62 percent of them didn’t face wage theft.
Almost 40 percent of the workers interviewed for the study reported they have seen money “disappear” from the payroll debit cards that many employers use instead of paychecks. Workers also complained of the many fees associated with using the cards. One said that every time he tries to withdraw his own money, he has to pay a $2 fee. For undocumented immigrants and others without bank accounts, a significant portion of their wages can be lost through such fees.
Over a third of the workers surveyed have had cash deducted from their pay to cover the cost of supplies and protective gear, such as gloves, that their employer should be providing. A worker at a George’s poultry plant reported that every time a glove gets punctured, he has to present his employee card to get a new pair. The cost of the gloves then appears as a subtraction from his wages.
Another worker told of how employees were forced to pay the price when the company’s equipment is faulty. “When machinery breaks, [the] company takes us outside…to the dining area so at times it takes one or two hours, and they make us clock out; all of that time when they are fixing the line is not paid to us.”
With such high numbers of workers reporting these kinds of illegal practices, it is clear that there is something rotten going on in the chicken industry.
Even when they do manage collect all the wages they are owed, most poultry workers still aren’t making enough to get by. And they’d better hope they don’t become ill, as almost half have faced the threat of disciplinary action if they call in sick. 91 percent say their employer makes no provision for sick leave whatsoever.
A woman who worked at Tyson for ten years, said that when she fell on the job and had to miss work for a few days to recover, not only did the company not provide any compensation, it actually reprimanded her. “They gave me [disciplinary] points because I reported to the supervisor that I had fallen.”
Racial discrimination in the companies’ promotions policies was also evident from the survey. A stunning 94 percent of Latino poultry workers and 92 percent of the foreign-born reported never being offered a promotion, even though these two groups have the longest average tenure on the job.
Women workers faced additional burdens on account of gender. Particularly, they cited the way that male supervisors deny bathroom breaks because it would interfere with the speed of production. Some women even reported having urinated on themselves when supervisors refused to let them go to the toilet. “These old men that [work] with me on that line really laugh at me,” one of them said, “because I pee myself at the line because I couldn’t hold it anymore.”
Sick workers, sickening chicken
It is not just the poultry workers themselves who are suffering due to these problems in the industry, though. For the rest of the general public, there is also a health and safety angle to this story. With no sick days, workers are under pressure to show up even when they are sick and should be at home. 31 percent of workers said they had witnessed contamination of meat products by sick colleagues.
Workers are forced to choose: their (and the public’s) health or their job.
The NWAWJC report concludes with a number of recommendations to reverse these dangerous conditions. It calls on the government to do more do enforce the laws that already exist when it comes to wage theft and payroll enforcement. It also calls for greater regulation of production line speeds and for the Arkansas legislature to implement sick day guarantees. Anti-discrimination laws are also placed high on the agenda.
The report recognizes, however, that the workers are going to have to come together and take up the fight for their own interests. Legislators alone can’t be counted on to change the balance of power. The poultry producers will not give up much without a fight.
To bring about lasting change to the poultry industry, organization is going to be key. “Producing so much for the state’s economy,” NWAWJC says, “poultry processing workers in Arkansas should be able to organize collectively and seek improved wages and working conditions without fear of retaliation.”
Poultry and meat processing workers in other places, such as Minnesota, have unionized and joined the United Food and Commercial Workers union (UFCW). These workers have seen safety conditions improve, with union stewards now monitoring line speeds. Wages have gone up. Protections against unlawful termination have been put in place, and paid holidays are now guaranteed.
If conditions are going to improve for Arkansas’ poultry workers, it’s going to take a similar struggle. The chicken bosses have ruled the roost unchallenged for long enough.
Photo: Courtesy Northwest Arkansas Workers’ Justice Center