From the moment his 10-hour shift started at 8 AM, Bacilio Castro cut the wings from at least 45 chickens every minute — some 2,700 chickens per hour and 27,000 chickens per shift. That was the expected rate at the Case Farms poultry processing plant in Morganton, North Carolina, where he worked. His supervisor sometimes pushed for more. The plant offered cash bonuses to supervisors whose line workers were particularly productive, providing an incentive to keep the pressure on them.
"They didn't care about our health," Castro said.
It was grueling work. By the end of the day, he couldn't move his hands. His shoulders and back ached badly, and the line's overpowering smell of ammonia — used for refrigeration — lingered even when he was in his own home, giving him a constant, terrible headache. Castro's job also brought considerable risk of neurological damage. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found in April that 76 percent of tested poultry processing employees had abnormal results following nerve conduction exams, while 34 percent showed signs of carpal tunnel syndrome, a painful nerve disorder often caused by forceful repetitive activity.
Americans consume 30 percent more chicken today than they did only 20 years ago, according to the National Chicken Council, and consumption is expected to grow. The demand for affordable food is greater than ever. Animal rights advocates have long decried inhumane treatment in meat processing plants. Now a scathing new report by Oxfam America released on Tuesday is highlighting the human cost of cheap chicken.
The report, Lives on the Line, reveals the exploitation, pain, and humiliation endured by workers in the poultry industry. One of them explained how she and many of her coworkers started wearing diapers to work because they were constantly denied bathroom breaks during their shifts. Another said he developed a prostate problem as a result of infrequent urination. Castro recalled working next to a woman who was heavily pregnant. She asked her supervisor if she could go to the bathroom four times, but the supervisor said there was no one to take her place on the line, so she wound up urinating on the floor. The disturbing incident led him to leave the industry in 2011 and begin working with The Workers Center, an organization that assists vulnerable, low-wage workers.
Many families regard cheap chicken as an easy means to a full stomach. Alternatives marketed as "free-range" and "organic" are pricey: generic store-brand chicken usually costs around $1.50 per pound, while organic or free-range chicken can cost more than $5 per pound. Animal rights advocates argue that such labels are largely meaningless to animal welfare. And even if they do promise a better life for the chicken, that doesn't necessarily translate into better working conditions. Small-scale organic agriculture is even less regulated than industrial agriculture, and receives less public scrutiny.
Without cheaper options, it would seem that only high earners could afford roast chicken, which doesn't seem fair. But the growing demand for cheap poultry is squeezing the industry, and giants such as Tyson Foods or Perdue Farms have made quantity the bottom line. Those most feeling the squeeze are people who work long shifts at breakneck speed with a single half-hour break while earning less than $10 an hour, often with little compensation for injuries incurred on the job.
Most of the chicken sold in the United States is processed into parts and specially packaged: breasts, tenders, thighs, legs, strips, skinless, breaded, glazed, sliced, spiced, and shaped. In the vertically integrated system of the modern poultry industry, there are now a range of jobs along the factory assembly line that didn't exist 50 years ago. They include "line loaders" who place the chickens on conveyor belts, "hangers" who insert the chicken's feet into overhead shackles, back/breast separators, shoulder cutters, wing cutters, de-boners, and a host of others. These workers are widely exposed to chemicals like ammonia and chlorine, which is often used to disinfect chicken carcasses. The industry's pervasive use of antibiotics in chicken can also affect workers, who have been known to build up antibiotic resistance that complicates their recovery from infection.
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.
Many of the workers featured in the Oxfam report said that they were reluctant to file complaints against their supervisors or report injuries because they feared retaliation. This threat is corroborated by previous studies, such as a report conducted in 2013 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. (At the time, the US Department of Agriculture was considering raising the maximum line speed for a poultry processing plant from 145 birds a minute up to 170 — a proposal that it eventually dropped.)
The report found that 45 percent of workers were sent back to their job without any treatment or time to heal, and that some were even fired for reporting injuries.
In a conference call organized by Oxfam on Monday, Tom Fritzsche, an author of the SPLC report, said the reality of work conditions in the poultry industry are "hidden from the public because of how poultry corporations respond to workers who get hurt." One worker said that her employer would fire anyone who complained of an injury three times, which Fritzsche called "a truly twisted version of three strikes and you're out."
"The industry taps into marginalized and vulnerable populations," the Oxfam report notes. "Of roughly 250,000 poultry workers, most are people of color, immigrants, or refugees," many of them from countries such as Myanmar, Sudan, or Somalia who were employed through resettlement programs. Castro estimates that well over half of his co-workers at the Case Farms processing plant didn't have documentation.
Oxfam has called on poultry producers to compensate workers fairly, improve health and safety standards, and allow its employees to speak up for their rights.
In an email to VICE News, Perdue spokesperson Julie DeYoung noted, "As part of Perdue's people-first philosophy, associates have the right to be heard by all levels of management to resolve a conflict or misunderstanding through the Open Door Policy." She added that the company finds "it curious that Oxfam has included Perdue in their campaign when we have been a leader in worker safety."
Tyson Foods spokesperson Gary Mickelson, whose company was the only one that consulted with Oxfam on these concerns ahead of the report's release, wrote that the company has "grievance systems in place as well as communications committees" for employees to discuss problems. He pointed out that Tyson provides a "confidential, toll-free help line for workers to report concerns without the fear of retaliation." DeYoung said that a similar system is in place at Perdue.
"Like Oxfam America, we believe in fair compensation," Mickelson said. "That's why our company already does many of the things Oxfam is recommending."
On the Friday ahead of the report's release, Tyson said it would increase the hourly wages of production, maintenance, and refrigeration employees at most of its plants on November 1. Starting wages for production workers at almost 40 plants will go from around $8 or $9 an hour to at least $10.
The National Chicken Council, which represents the poultry industry, said in a statement responding to the report that it is "unfortunate" that Oxfam portrays "an undeserved negative image of the entire poultry industry despite our outstanding record of improvement in employee health and safety," noting that the poultry industry's injury rate lags behind that of other manufacturing jobs.
But it's crucial that the pace of these improvements match the escalating demand that strains the poultry industry in the first place. Americans are expected to eat more chicken next year and even more the year after that. At the end of the day, the workers on the assembly line are left racing to keep up with our appetites.
Follow Tess Owen on Twitter: @misstessowen