Americans consume more chicken than ever before — 30 percent more than they did just 20 years ago.
Not only do consumers in the US want chicken, they want it cheap, and in an increasing variety of styles and shapes. Growing demand is squeezing the industry, and as a result, the four industrial poultry giants — Tyson Foods, Perdue Farms, Sanderson Farms, and Pilgrim's Pride — have made quantity their bottom line. The people feeling the squeeze the most are line workers in colossal poultry processing plants. They often end up working long shifts, at breakneck speeds to keep up with American appetites and tastes, with a single half-hour break, all while earning less than $10 an hour.
The pressure to keep up with the line speed is so great that supervisors routinely deny workers' requests to go to the bathroom, according to a new Oxfam America report, titled No Relief: Denial of Bathroom Breaks in the Poultry Industry.
To avoid the embarrassment of becoming so desperate that they urinate or defecate on the floor, many workers say that they've grown accustomed to wearing diapers while at work. "I had to wear Pampers," one worker told Oxfam. "I, and many, many others had to wear Pampers."
Different plants and departments have varying rules when it comes to bathroom breaks, but the overall consensus among poultry workers surveyed seems to be that leaving the production line to use the restroom is a privilege, not a right. If a worker need to go, someone has to replace them on the line until they come back. Workers say finding a replacement can take up to an hour. Sometimes, they say, a replacement never arrives.One worker at Pilgrim's plant in Alabama, told Oxfam that the only time he and his hundreds of colleagues were allowed to use the bathroom was during their 30 minute lunch break. In that time, he had to undress from his work gear, eat lunch, line up to use the bathroom and then get back into work gear.
A 2013 report conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, called Unsafe at These Speeds: Alabama's Poultry Industry and Its Disposable Workers said some workers reported policies limiting bathroom breaks to five minutes. "Workers described stripping off their gear while running to the restroom, an embarrassing but necessary action to meet the strict five-minute time limit" the report said. "This race to the bathroom is also dangerous because processing plant floors can be slippery with fat, blood, water, and other liquids."
A worker named Susana, who spoke with VICE news on the condition of using a pseudonym, said that her supervisor at the Tyson poultry plant in Arkansas where she works caps bathroom breaks at seven minutes. Susana's job is to clean the chickens which have just been eviscerated. It smells like a combination of chicken blood and bleach, she says. It's also very cold, to protect the machines from overheating.
Susana was one of the 200 workers affected by a chlorine gas leak in 2011, and is involved in an ongoing suit against the plant. She has had serious respiratory problems ever since the incident, but says she has to stay at Tyson because they are providing her with medical services, and she has two children who she needs to support. Because of her respiratory complications, she says that it's very difficult to get to the bathroom and back in only seven minutes. She's allowed to take a little more time – because of her health problems – but her colleagues are not afforded the same luxury.
"They are told they shouldn't drink a lot of water so they don't need to go to the bathroom," Susana said. Many workers surveyed in the report say that they limit their liquid intake to avoid needing to urinate while at work.
Susanna says that limited bathroom breaks often cause her physical pain.
"It's not just [workers'] dignity that suffers: they are in danger of serious health problems," the report notes. Infrequent urination can cause urinary tract infections (UTI's) which, if left untreated, can come with flu-like symptoms, lead to kidney infections and in some extreme circumstances, can be fatal.
Pregnant women court a particularly high risk of developing UTIs, which can harm the mother and the fetus. Treating UTI's can also be complicated. The industry's pervasive use of antibiotics in chicken can affect workers, who have been known to build up antibiotic resistance that complicates their recovery from infection. In the report, many workers who were profiled described persistent pain in their stomach and kidney area.
Since the 1970s, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has been the primary monitor of meat processing workers' safety in the country, developing standardized workplace regulations and conducting inspections to ensure that they are met. But it is understaffed and underfunded: OSHA inspected less than one percent of the country's workplaces in 2013.
When it does inspect plants, penalties for violations don't pack a punch. In 2014, the average federal penalty issued by OSHA for a "serious violation" — health and safety hazards that pose significant risk of injury or death — was just $1,972.
In response to the report, Deborah Berkowitz, a former OSHA official (now a senior fellow at the National Employment Law Project) wrote in an op-ed published in Quartz that what workers described to Oxfam was consistent with what she witnessed during her time at OSHA.
"I witnessed the dangers. Poultry workers stand shoulder to shoulder on both sides of long conveyor belts, most using scissors or knives, in cold, damp, loud conditions, making the same forceful movements thousands upon thousands of times a day, as they skin, pull, cut, debone and pack the chickens. The typical plant processes 180,000 birds a day. A typical worker handles 40 birds a minute."
Berkowitz notes that "access to a bathroom is required under US safety laws, but it would take over 100 years for the nation's understaffed worker-safety agency to visit every workplace just once." She suggests that companies hire more staff so that workers can easily find someone to replace them on the line if they need to use the bathroom.
Many of the workers subject to these conditions are already part of a vulnerable population, and the industry tapes into a "marginalized and vulnerable populations," a previous Oxfam America report noted.
"Of roughly 250,000 poultry workers, most are people of color, immigrants, or refugees," the report says, with many of them from countries such as Myanmar, Sudan, or Somalia who were employed through resettlement programs in the US. Bacilio Castro, a former poultry worker at Case Farms in North Carolina, told VICE News that he believed well over half of his colleagues were undocumented.
The National Chicken Council — a trade association representing the US poultry industry — released a statement on Wednesday challenging the allegations Oxfam's report makes against the industry. "We're troubled by these claims but also question [Oxfam's] efforts to paint the whole industry with a broad brush based on a handful of anonymous claims," the statement said. "We believe such instances are extremely rare and that US poultry companies work hard to prevent them."
"Coordinating restroom breaks in the workplace is certainly not unique to the chicken industry," the NCC added. "Whether it's a cashier, bus driver, bartender, bank teller, or just about any manufacturing job, there are practices in place related to restroom breaks that are clearly outlined to the employee."
Gary Mickelsen, a spokesperson for Tyson foods, told VICE News in an email that the company was "concerned about these anonymous claims" and "while we currently have no evidence they're true, are checking to make sure our position on restroom breaks is being followed and our Team Members' needs are being met." Mickelsen added that representatives from the company have met with Oxfam America in the past to discuss their concerns, and "told them that while we believe we're a caring responsible company, we're always willing to consider ways we can do better."
"Protecting and ensuring the health and safety of each and every Pilgrim's team member is core to who we are as a company" wrote Cameron Bruett from Pilgrim's Pride, adding that employees "have the opportunity" to report grievances through a "dispute resolution process," a "union-negotiated and arbitration process" or the "Pride Line" — a 'real-time, 24 hours a day telephonic reporting system."
Julie DeYoung from Perdue Farms similarly stressed that "the health and welfare of our associates is paramount and we take these types of
allegations very seriously."
"The anecdotes reported are not consistent with Perdue's policies and practices. Perdue has an Open Door Policy which includes an anonymous toll-free hotline to voice concerns. Our internal review did not find any of these complaints."
Sanderson Farms declined to comment.
Oxfam say their findings are the result of three years of research, hundreds of interviews with current and former poultry workers, medical experts, and worker advocates, and are in keeping with other studies on the same subject. SPLC for example, surveyed 266 poultry workers in Alabama, and found that 80 percent said they weren't permitted to take bathroom breaks when they needed them.