Our Statement in Solidarity with DACAmented Immigrants.

 The NWA Workers’ Justice Center stands in solidarity and in resistance with the 800,000-young people who have been placed in a precarious position due to the repeal of DACA. As a grassroots organization that works closely with immigrant workers, we know DACA was a crucial component of the well-being of immigrant families, who came to this country seeking a better life. We strongly believe that all immigrants deserve dignity and respect. We are deeply concern for the legal violence our immigrant communities experience under the policy making process of this administration. Now more than ever, we need to stand together, to organize, to mobilize, to take direct action and to bring back the strength that the DREAMers showed us once and that made DACA possible in the first place.

El Centro de Justicia para los trabajadores del noroeste de Arkansas, se pone en solidaridad y resistencia con los 800.000 jóvenes que se encuentran en una posición precaria debido a la derogación del DACA. Como organización de base que trabaja en estrecha colaboración con los trabajadores inmigrantes, sabemos que DACA es un componente crucial para el bienestar de las familias inmigrantes, que vinieron a este país en busca de una vida mejor. Creemos firmemente que todos los inmigrantes merecen dignidad y respeto. Estamos profundamente preocupados por la violencia legal que nuestras comunidades inmigrantes experimentan durante este proceso de formulación de nuevas leyes de esta administración. Ahora más que nunca, necesitamos estar juntos, organizarnos, movilizarnos, tomar acción directa y retomar la fuerza que los DREAMers nos mostraron algun dia y que hizo que DACA fuera posible en primer lugar.

NWAWJC signs on to political statement direct towards Obama

Honorable Barack Obama, 

Mr. President,

As workers, we do not usually talk to highly important people, let alone have the honor of addressing the first black president of this country.

We are appealing to you as our president, as the person who is charged with representing the needs and interests of the people of this country.

 Today, as a result of the 26.3% will of all eligible voters, or if you prefer a minority representing 46.1% of the popular vote (2,864,978 fewer votes than the candidate who took first place), we are confronting a new political regime of a minority. That minority wants to change the country, so much that they have already announced measures of restriction to human, civil, political, economic and cultural rights. 

That minority has taken the streets and is threatening society and its diverse people. And among that minority are public servants who are taking actions that are creating a collective state of fear. That minority is raising their voices and shouting what they did not dare to say in public before. This minority hates and lets everyone know.

 They want to create divisions among people. Between whites and all the others. They are betting on the creation of a system of racial segregation (identifying “bad migrants” – people of color – and differentiating them from good migrants – white populations from Europe).

 Contrary to what is commonly believed in this country, immigrant workers of all nationalities, ethnicities, languages and cultures do not come to create problems, we come to provide solutions. We contributed almost 32% to our Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The 11 million undocumented workers contribute almost 4% to our GDP. We bring more solutions to this country than the supposed problems that are attributed to us.

 We know for certain that you have not always been our ally. The more than 3 million undocumented workers deported during your regime testify to it. But, today you remain the President of all the people of this country and have the legal responsibility to protect and defend the Constitution and human rights.

 Therefore, because it remains your responsibility, we demand that you stop the aggressions and threats against immigrants and people of color. We demand that you investigate and punish those responsible, and even more.

 The first black president of this country will have to hand over the mandate to a regime that offers prejudice and social ostracism. Because we understand this, we also appeal to the role of the President as an ethical leader of a society that seeks to build its social relations with justice, dignity, equity, and democracy. We are approaching you, as the political leader of this country.

 Thus today we demand that you assume your status as President of the United States of America and help prevent a domestic humanitarian catastrophe. Deporting 11 million human beings will not only irreversibly damage the economy of this country, it will break the social fabric, community life and the trust of society in its institutions. Destroying our right to live in peace and civility does not open doors to the construction of a society like the one you helped create and strengthen.

 Mr. President, we require you take a bold, creative, and humane political measure to protect families and help consolidate the national economy. We demand that you issue as soon as possible a Decree for General Pardon of Infraction of Immigration Status before the end of your term of office. This should include all undocumented workers.

 We know that we speak with a brave leader; you have shown it. Today society demands that you take action as our most worthy champion.


Immigrant Worker Center Collaborative (IWCC from Massachusetts and Rhode Island).

Brazilian Worker Center (Allston, MA)

Brazilian Women’s Group (Brighton, MA)

Centro Comunitario de Trabajadores (New Bedford, MA)

Chelsea Collaborative (Chelsea, MA)

Chinese Progressive Association (Chinatown, Boston, MA)

Fuerza Laboral (Central Falls, RI)

Lynn Worker Center for Economic Justice (Lynn, MA)

MassCOSH (Dorchester and East Boston, MA)

Metrowest Worker Center/Casa do Trabalhador/ Casa del Trabajador (Framingham and Milford, MA)

Essex County Community Organization.

Neighbor to Neighbor Massachusetts.

Matahari Women Workers, Massachusetts.

Justice At Work, Massachusetts.

Centro Presente, Massachusetts.

UMass Boston, Labor Resource Center.

Harvard Trade Union Program.

Sister Eileen Burns, SNDdeN, Executive Director of Notre Dame Education Center, Lawrence, MA.

Bro. Kenneth V. Hogan, FMS, Board Member, Notre Dame Education Center-Lawrence-MA.

Boston Area Spanish Exchange (BASE).

Teury Marte, Salem MA Latino Coalition.

Unitarian Universalist Mass Action Network.

Arlington Street Church- Social Action Committee.

Massachusetts Communities Action Network.

Clinicians for Healthy Families.

Student Immigrant Movement.

Massachusetts Jobs With Justice.

Cambridge United for Justice with Peace.

Merrimack Valley Project. Massachusetts.

New Lynn Coalition, Massachusetts.

Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha CTUL. Minneapolis.

El Centro del Inmigrante, New York.

Staten Island Immigrants Council.

Chicago Worker’s Collaborative. Illinois.

Taj James, Movement Strategy Center. Oakland, California.

Latina Center MARIA. California.

San Francisco Living Wage Coalition.

Central American Refugee Committee (CRECE). California.

Dorothy P. Wonder, East Bay Sanctuary Covenant, Berkeley, California.

Bay Area Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador, California.

Pomona Economic Opportunity Center, California.

Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance.

Freedom University. Atlanta, Georgia.

Project South, Atlanta, Georgia.

Dignidad Inmigrante, Athens, Georgia.

Athens Immigrant Rights Coalition AIRC, Georgia.

Economic Justice Coalition, Athens, Georgia.

U-Lead Athens, Georgia.

Northwest Arkansas Workers Justice Center (NWAWJC), Arkansas.

Lucha, Arkansas. 

Vermont Workers’ Center. Vermont.

Dark Meat: Working conditions not to be thankful for


On the debone line, the birds come at you fast. That was Lisandro Vega’s first lesson. The former prison guard in Puerto Rico had moved to the town of Huntsville, Arkansas, in 2013, following relatives who found work at a Butterball turkey plant. There, he was given a knife and gloves and told to stand at a station, where 47 dead and defeathered turkeys rushed past each minute. He was responsible for every second bird. Sometimes he cut out the hip joints; other times the breasts and livers. The pace was relentless: 1,410 birds an hour, more than 11,000 a shift.

And sometimes they come at you faster. Beginning in October, Butterball requires plant employees to work approximately 50 days straight to meet the Thanksgiving rush. In Huntsville, people call this period “fresh”—in Spanish, la fresca—because that’s when birds are sold fresh, not frozen. During this time, the line speed increases; Vega recalls it reaching, according to his supervisor, 51 birds a minute. (Butterball declined to comment on its line speed.) A debone worker like Vega can slice up more than half a million turkeys before receiving a single day off.

“In training, they tell you that if you can’t get to the turkey, just let it go by, because you can injure yourself with the knife,” he says. “But once you are in debone, if you miss a turkey, you’re going to immediately hear: ‘What happened? You can’t let them go by!’ ”

It is early evening, and we are standing in front of Lolo’s Mexican Grill in Huntsville, about a mile south of the plant. Vega, 46, is short and trim, with a shaved head that reflects the glow of a gorgeous October moon. It wasn’t that Vega harbored illusions about turkey plant work. His son-in-law had quit shortly before he arrived, after a supervisor refused to allow him to take a bathroom break—a frequent complaint among poultry workers. The man had peed himself right there on the line. “His pants were wet, yet he finished his shift. Then he walked out and didn’t come back,” Vega says.

But the pain in Vega’s hands took some getting used to. He began submerging them in a container of hot bleached water, perched nearby to disinfect dropped knives. During brief moments between birds, he’d stretch out his fingers, which tended to harden, clawlike, around his knife. And though he knew that many of his co-workers went to the nurse’s station to ice their hands and others had surgery for carpal tunnel syndrome, he found his own ways to cope. In Puerto Rico, he had dealt with inmate uprisings. He was accustomed to soldiering through.

“Once you are in debone, if you miss a turkey, you’re going to immediately hear: ‘What happened? You can’t let them go by!’ ”

During his third “fresh” in October 2015, the ache in Vega’s hands was superseded by shooting pains in his back. While moving a heavy container of turkey carcasses with a pallet jack, he slipped and fell, throwing out his back. He struggled to get up and hobbled over to the nurse’s station. For several days, he returned to the station during breaks, where his back was iced and rubbed down with Icy Hot by a nurse. (Butterball would not comment on whether its plant nurses are highly trained RNs or minimally trained LPNs; the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration has no requirements as long as the nurses only operate within their scope of practice.) Within a week, the pain had become tolerable, though he still walked tentatively.

Then, in February, while moving another carton of turkey, he slipped on ice in the plant’s freezer, landing hard on his tender back. He returned to the nurse’s station for more ice and pain-relieving cream. Soon he was a regular, visiting twice a day for treatments. Yet he wasn’t getting better. Vega asked about seeing a doctor but says that his supervisor told him that if he did, he would be suspended.

One day, while signing in at the nurse’s station, he noticed a posting on the wall. It listed an impressive number of hours that workers had gone without suffering injuries causing them to miss shifts. According to Butterball, the plant was one of the safest worksites in the country; in 2013, the company announced that Huntsville employees had worked 8 million hours without what is called a lost-time injury. That’s a remarkable figure—the equivalent of a single person working full-time for 3,835 consecutive years.

Vega looked around the nurse’s station. He saw three people whose swollen hands were being iced. Another man had his shoulder wrapped in ice. On the walk over from the debone line, sharp pains had shot through Vega’s back with each step. If none of us are hurt, he asked himself, then what are we all doing in the nurse’s station?

* * *

The Butterball plant is set back on a quiet road that meanders through rolling hills, just inside the limits of Huntsville (population: 2,346), whose motto is “Crossroads of the Ozarks.” The sprawling white structure, whose doors opened in 1974, is surrounded by a barbed-wire fence and employs more than 650 people. Each year, leading up to Thanksgiving, it cranks out 45,000 turkeys a day.

On a cloudy day, a few minutes after 5 o’clock, employees are emerging through a vertical metal turnstile to walk slowly to their cars. It is day 13 of “fresh.” I take a seat on a bench near the turnstile and talk to a Latina woman who looks to be in her 40s as she waits for her ride. She wears a purple sweater and is gingerly opening and closing her hands.

“Of course they hurt,” she tells me. “But I can handle it.” She suggests, however, that I probably shouldn’t apply for a job inside, then declines to say more after I identify myself as a journalist.

As in most poultry plants in Northwest Arkansas, the workforce is a mix of whites, blacks, Latino immigrants, and Marshallese—immigrants from the Marshall Islands, in the South Pacific, attracted to the region by poultry work. (The Marshallese have special permission to work in this country, a result of U.S. nuclear testing in the 1940s and ’50s that rendered many of their islands uninhabitable.)

Turkey is big business in Arkansas. Last year, the state produced 561 million pounds of turkey meat, fifth in the nation behind North Carolina, Minnesota, Indiana, and Missouri. Butterball, the nation’s largest turkey company, has two other plants in the state. Thirty miles east of Huntsville is the city of Springdale, which the Arkansas state legislature recently declared the “poultry capital of the world.” It’s hard to argue with the title. The city is home to another hulking turkey plant, this one owned by Cargill, and is the corporate headquarters of Tyson Foods. On the short drive from my Springdale motel to the Cargill plant, I pass three chicken plants, two hatcheries, and a dead turkey on the side of the road.*

In the middle of all these plants is a one-story brick complex that contains the offices of the Northwest Arkansas Workers’ Justice Center. With a staff of four, the group has launched a campaign to improve the working conditions and wages of the nearly 28,000 poultry processing workers in Arkansas. Earlier this year, they marched on the Tyson headquarters, holding signs that read “WE ARE NOT MACHINES, WE ARE HUMANS.” The group is underfunded, understaffed, and feisty.

I meet Nelson Escobar in the parking lot. Originally from El Salvador, he worked briefly at a poultry plant in Springdale but balked at what he felt were inhumane working conditions. “Out here, if you get hurt, they fire you,” he tells me. “If you complain, they fire you. I didn’t like any of that.” He started volunteering at the center several years ago and is now the group’s director of organizing.

Escobar ushers me into a room where a woman with brown hair is seated at a long table. Vilma Asencio began working at the Cargill turkey plant in 2001; her first job involved pushing around racks of turkeys, which she says can weigh up to 2,000 pounds. At one point, she was moved to the shackle line, where she spent her shifts lifting dead birds up onto hooks. “These were big turkeys,” she says. In 1960, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the average turkey weighed less than 17 pounds. Today the average weight is more than 30 pounds, with some of the largest males reaching more than twice that. Such sizes make natural breeding impossible, which is why there is an occupation called an artificial turkey inseminator.

Last year, Arkansas produced 561 million pounds of turkey meat.

After a year on the shackle line, Asencio says her right hand began to feel like it was permanently asleep. “I had lost all my strength,” she says. “Even a water bottle was too hard to open.” She went to the company nurse, who offered her little more than ice. Asencio says she had a private insurance plan with Blue Cross Blue Shield, for which she paid $89 a week. “I knew that the company only wanted to put Band-Aids on everything. I didn’t trust them.” As the weakness in her hand worsened and the nurse continued to refuse to refer her for an outside exam, Asencio scheduled her own appointment with a doctor. He ordered a nerve conduction study, which confirmed carpal tunnel syndrome, and scheduled a surgery. Asencio took the report back to the plant nurse and filed a workers’ compensation claim. The company’s insurer denied the claim, she recalls, determining that the carpal tunnel was unrelated to the repetitive motions she made on the job. “I didn’t even try to fight it,” she says, lifting up her arm to reveal a scar on her wrist. “I just wanted the strength in my hand to return.” After the surgery, she was out of work for three months.

Cargill spokesman Mike Martin said by email that although the company does not discuss individual cases, Cargill complies with all regulations related to workplace health and safety and considers the safety of its workers “paramount.”

“It’s crazy,” says Evelyn Brooks, an attorney in Arkansas who specializes in workers’ compensation cases and estimates that half her caseload involves poultry companies. “A worker like Asencio did the same fast production line work since 2001. But then insurance companies will ask questions like, ‘Do you whittle in your spare time?’ They’ll try to blame the injury on anything else. It’s the insurance company that makes the decision, but a place like Cargill—which is like a workers’ comp machine—is heavily involved.” A company with a high number of workers’ compensation cases, she notes, will end up paying more for its premiums.

In 2014 Asencio had a second surgery to resolve what her doctor originally believed was tendinitis in her right shoulder, also caused by the repetitive lifting of turkeys. This time, the insurance company didn’t question that her pain was work-related. But three weeks before her surgery, Asencio was called into the plant’s office. Her mother had recently died, and a manager handed her a condolence card. Then she fired her.

According to Asencio, she said she had been late too many times, a charge she disputes. (Martin declined to comment on the alleged firing but said Cargill “complies with all employment laws.”) When she had the surgery, doctors discovered that her tendon was not simply inflamed; it had actually snapped. Two years later, her shoulder still causes significant pain, but her doctor has not recommended further treatment. Brooks is now representing Asencio in a case in front of the Arkansas Workers’ Compensation Commission; she has requested that Asencio be assigned a new doctor. “I just want some of the pain to go away,” says Asencio, who is studying counseling at the University of Phoenix. Her hope is to someday land a job where she doesn’t need to use her arms or hands.

* * *

This February, the Northwest Arkansas Workers’ Justice Center published a lengthy report about poultry workers in Arkansas, which included data drawn from surveys of 500 turkey and chicken plant workers. About 60 percent of these workers reported having suffered an injury or illness on the job. One of the chief complaints was the dizzying line speed. Several workers reported that the lines go so fast that they often don’t even realize they have cut themselves until later.

During my interviews with a dozen turkey plant workers in Arkansas, line speed was identified as the major concern. The speed is regulated not by the Department of Labor but by the Department of Agriculture, whose sole criterion in setting maximum speeds is food safety. In 2012, under a proposed new poultry inspection system, the agency sought to increase the maximum line speed of turkeys from 51 to 55 birds per minutes and from 140 to 175 birds for chickens. The speed-up was supported by the National Turkey Federation, whose members include Butterball and Cargill; in its formal comments on the proposed regulation, the NTF cited the poultry industry’s “constantly improving” injury rates. (The NTF also heralded the proposed system as a step forward for food safety. But Food and Water Watch, an advocacy group, obtained 2011 inspection reports for three turkey plants that, as part of a USDA pilot project, were already running their lines at the higher speed. The group found inspection error rates—the rate at which employees missed items like bits of beak, bile, or fecal matter on turkey carcasses—of between 87 and 100 percent.)

After an outcry among worker safety advocates and unions, along with food safety groups, the USDA backed off the increase in chicken speeds but let the turkey increase go through as planned. Vega told me that he couldn’t imagine working on a line going any faster than 51 birds a minute—the top speed he’d faced during “fresh”—but now workers might have to.

“I think because there are fewer turkey plants, they got less focus,” says Deborah Berkowitz of the National Employment Law Project. “But the hazards are the exact same. The only difference is that turkeys are bigger, so you’ll see more cumulative trauma disorders, because it takes more effort to cut through the meat.”

Berkowitz, a former chief of staff for OSHA under the Obama administration, first stepped inside a Virginia turkey plant in 1982, when she was with the AFL-CIO. The shock has stayed with her. “I had never seen people work so hard in my life,” she recalls. “And they were getting something called carpal tunnel syndrome. That’s where we really saw it first, in the turkeys. We brought someone in who told the company they could change the knife that workers used, and they wouldn’t get hurt as much. The company said F-you. I’ve been at war with the industry ever since.”

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, an arm of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, researches workplace injuries and ways to prevent them. The last time NIOSH looked at repetitive cutting motions in turkey plants was 1987, nearly 30 years ago. The agency visited a plant in Colorado, where it videotaped workers on the job and reviewed company paperwork. Its team, which included several doctors and an industrial engineer, discovered that employees performed up to 28,800 cuts in a single shift. The investigation also revealed what it called “considerable underreporting of injuries.” The company, it found, kept two books. The first tracked injuries for the plant’s medical log; the other listed injuries reported to OSHA. In one month, 160 injuries were noted in the medical log. Only six were reported to the government.

Failing to record injuries is one strategy to create the illusion of a safe workplace. Another is to fail to refer workers to doctors for proper tests and diagnoses. Each time an injury causes an employee to miss a day of work or to receive medical treatment beyond first aid, the company is required to record it in an OSHA log book. This data is reported each year to the Department of Labor and is used to identify industries with high injury rates—whose facilities will then face increased inspections. An industry that reports low injury rates is less likely to receive scrutiny from OSHA’s overstretched investigators.

In the summer of 2014, executives of the nation’s largest poultry companies—including Cargill and Butterball—gathered at the Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort, a 2,400-acre retreat on the Florida coast. They were in town for an industry-sponsored safety conference that focused on “ergonomics and reducing cumulative trauma disorders.” The conference concluded with an awards ceremony, honoring poultry plants with better-than-average injury rates for three consecutive years. Wayne Farms, a Georgia-based company, took home 13 awards, including an “Award of Honor” for its processing plant in the unincorporated community of Jack, Alabama.

Several weeks earlier, OSHA had concluded an inspection of the same Jack plant. Inspectors found that Wayne Farms had a “standard practice of returning injured workers to regular duty.” One employee was seen by the nurse 94 times before finally being referred to a physician.

“Perhaps more than any other industry, the poultry industry has focused its energies on the prevention of workplace injuries,” read a joint press release put out earlier this year, on behalf of the National Turkey Federation, the National Chicken Council, and the U.S. Poultry and Egg Association. It is true that the official injury rate for poultry workers has decreased: From 2004 to 2013, it dropped by 42 percent, from 9.8 to 5.7 injuries per 100 full-time workers. Yet as the Wayne Farms plant demonstrates, a low injury rate may simply mean that companies have found new ways of discouraging workers from receiving needed medical treatment or taking time off.

It’s difficult to know the true injury rates among poultry workers—though they certainly are much greater than official figures suggest. Part of the problem is that OSHA is a severely underfunded agency. OSHA inspectors, according to the Wall Street Journal, only have the capacity to visit each U.S. workplace once every 99 years. Inspectors haven’t set foot inside Huntsville’s Butterball plant since 1995, back when Bill Clinton was in his first term. Many workers, after being injured, simply quit. In the Northwest Arkansas Workers’ Justice Center study, more than 1 in 5 injured workers reported that they were subsequently fired.

There have been two recent investigations by NIOSH of repetitive stress injuries at chicken plants that give a more reliable indication of injury rates. In March of 2014, NIOSH found that 42 percent of workers at a chicken plant in South Carolina showed evidence of carpal tunnel syndrome. A year later, it published another study, this time of a Maryland chicken plant; 34 percent of the workers exhibited evidence of carpal tunnel.

In Maryland, NIOSH also reviewed the company’s OSHA injury logs. Over a period of four years, from 2010 to 2013, it found only four entries for workers who had suffered work-related carpal tunnel syndrome.

* * *

For Lisandro Vega, the former prison guard from Puerto Rico, the breaking point came in late April, two months after his second fall.

He had been visiting the plant nurse to have his back iced and rubbed down with cream during each break throughout late February, the entire month of March, and into April. Twice a day, every workday, he shuffled back and forth from the debone line to the plant nurse.

He started visiting a massage therapist once a week in Springdale, on his own dime, but didn’t tell the company, not wanting to get in trouble. The therapist told Vega that his lower column was deviated, he recalls, and that the massages would only temporarily alleviate his pain. Standing upright and slicing through thousands of turkeys a day wasn’t giving his back a chance to recover. Several times, he woke up and tried to get out of bed, only to have his back seize on him. “I would just lie there, unable to move, staring at the ceiling,” he says. On those days, he didn’t make it in to work.

Up to the end, he continued to get twice-a-day treatment at the nurse’s station. It had started to become second nature to walk leaning to one side, which slightly relieved the pain in his lower back. Yet he worried that he might do permanent damage to his body, and even the grizzled prison guard knew that it wasn’t worth taking the risk. Not knowing what else to do, in mid-April, he quit. Butterball’s injury-free streak remained intact.

The Grind is a yearlong series looking at the unsavory—and often hidden—working conditions behind some of our cherished annual traditions. It is a collaboration with the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute, a nonprofit journalism center.

Correction, Nov. 22, 2016: This article originally stated that the author stayed in a motel in Springfield, Arkansas. The motel is in Springdale.

Consumers, poultry workers last line of defense against exploitation and inhumanity by Parker Assmann


Now that the national media has picked up on the grave injustices plaguing poultry industry workers in the United States, there’s one last line of defense for these workers that needs to organize now that worker’s rights organizations and other non-profits have reached the public. 

As we previously reported this month, the Northwest Arkansas Workers’ Justice Center produced a report in February detailing extreme labor exploitation and human rights abuses within U.S. poultry plants. While that didn’t receive the national attention it deserved, Oxfam America’s May report detailing a lack of adequate bathroom breaks for poultry workers pushed the issue to the front lines of mainstream media.

Americans consume more chicken than anyone else in the world. According to recent statistics from the National Chicken Council, Americans consumed 106.1 pounds of chicken per person in 2015 and are projected to consume 108.6 pounds by the end of 2016. And unlike red meat, chicken consumption among Americans has steadily increased annually since the 1960s. If there’s anyone that can compete for power and control within the poultry industry, it’s consumers. 

Oliver Gottfried is the Senior Advocacy and Collaborations Advisor at Oxfam America, an international confederation of 17 organizations working in approximately 94 countries worldwide to find solutions to poverty and what it considers injustice around the world. While his organization’s report has received the most attention as of late, several other groups have contributed to efforts in raising awareness.

The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union primarily represents workers in the food industry in the U.S. and Canada. While they and other national and local organizations aided by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the National Employment Law Project have raised considerable awareness, Gottfried explained that it’s up to consumers to enact needed change. 

“When the food industry has changed in the past in a lot of sectors, it has had a lot to do with consumers,” Gottfried said. “They (consumers) havent acted yet because they simply don’t know and aren’t aware of things yet. Once they do know they will take action.”

And Gottfried is right, consumers have started to take action. He explained that in the weeks following the release of the report, organizers were able to collect more than 150,000 signatures to present to Tyson Foods demanding improved workers conditions. Additionally, “we were able to engage more than 100,000 people on social media,” Gottfried said. But it’s not nearly enough.

Tyson Foods, Pilgrim’s, Purdue and Sanderson Farms together control about 60 percent of the poultry industry and employ more than 100,000 workers. For decades, this billion dollar industry has capitalized on consumer demand and their workers have suffered as a result. If any change is to occur, the culture of the industry itself and its leaders needs a complete overhaul. 

“Because you have such consolidation, these large corporations are able to dictate conditions for the rest of the industry,” Gottfried said. Although, consumers are also able to dictate how the industry functions given how their product demand influences the industry’s success. Tyson Foods is the only company thus far to respond to these consumer demands.

The market leader has announced that “third-party auditors are evaluating workplace conditions as part of a new social compliance program” started by the company. While it’s still unclear if the results of these audits will be made public, it’s a step in the right direction. As an industry leader that has some of the best publicly stated policies pertaining to their workers, consumers need to continue to push Tyson to be the best they can be.

“They are a leader and we are calling on them to be a leader in worker conditions and take the next step to make sure that each of their plants is living up to these standards,” Gottfried said. “By doing that, they can really set themselves apart as a leader and I believe there are a number of economic benefits in doing so.” 

Asking everyone to stop eating meat and buying into our meat and poultry industries is unrealistic. It won’t work. What consumers can do, though, is limit their consumption of meat. As Gottfried has outlined, more awareness and a willingness from consumers to understand where the things they eat come from can change the industry. 

Even if it only means going from eating meat daily to every other day or once a week, consumers can change the industry. And even though industry leaders have pledged and initiated efforts to change, various reports have proven time and again that they cannot be trusted. The path to meaningful change rests on the shoulders of one group.


Meat and Poultry Workers Are Forced to Sacrifice Their Health Just To Do Their Jobs by Esther Yu-Hsi Lee


Poultry and meat workers face some of the most hazardous conditions in the country, and the likelihood that they will be injured on the job remain twice as high as all U.S. workers, according to U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) data compiled for a Government Accountability Office reportreleased Wednesday.

Although injuries in the poultry and meat industry dropped by nearly 40 percent overall between 2004 and 2013, it’s possible that both employees and employers may underreport these issues. Many workers may be afraid of losing their jobs, while employers may be concerned with incurring potential costs.

Sens. Patty Murray (D-WA) and Bob Casey (D-PA) and Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) — the Democratic lawmakers who released the report — are calling on the GAO to work with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to mitigate the dangerous conditions inside U.S. slaughterhouses.

This is a matter of basic justice.

“The conditions that these workers are forced to endure is an outrage, and have no place in our nation,” Casey said, according to The Hill. “This is a matter of basic justice. The meat and poultry industry must quickly take substantial steps to improve the workplace conditions for those in this industry.”

Latinos and immigrants make up a large part of the meat and poultry industry workforce, according to a 2005 human Human Rights Watch report. But because some of the immigrants are undocumented, they often “suffer violations of their rights but are afraid to challenge them,” which allows employers to exploit them with bad pay and dirty, dangerous working conditions.

Jose Gaytan, an immigrant from Mexico, began working in slaughterhouses at the age of 19 because he thought the job would pay well. He began to feel his hands change from the effects of his job to “pull the tenderloin, which is where the filet mignon comes from,” he previously told ThinkProgress. Every night, his hands would “sting” and hurt.

Pedro, a poultry worker at a Tyson plant in North Carolina, processes 45 to 60 chickens every minute. To treat his hands — which get so swollen from handling the chickens that he has to wear 3XL-sized plastic gloves — a nurse told him to take ibuprofen and to soak his hands in Epsom salt and hot water.

Although Pedro and Jose have to work through the pain, they are actually among the fortunate in the meat industry. Other workplace injuries in this sector have resulted in fatalities. The new GAO report found that between 2004 and 2013, 151 workers died on the job, with transportation incidents cited as the most frequent cause of death.

The report also found that meat and poultry workers experienced higher illness rates than other manufacturing workers, with illnesses accounting for more than one-fourth of all reported injury and illness cases in 2013. In some cases, workers experienced respiratory ailment symptoms because of the chlorine used in poultry plants, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspectors told GAO report researchers.

The revelations in the GAO report are not new. Over the past year OxFam America released reports detailing the horrid conditions that poultry workers undergo, such as low pay; exposure to harsh chemicals used to clean up the blood, offal, and grease that flows from the birds; and repetitive strains. Another recent OxFam report found that some workers resorted to wearing adult diapers because they weren’t able to use the bathroom when they needed to.

After that report was released, the National Chicken Council and the U.S. Poultry & Egg Association insisted that the health and safety of employees remained a “top priority” for poultry processors.

“We’re troubled by these claims but also question this group’s efforts to paint the whole industry with a broad brush based on a handful of anonymous claims,” the organization wrote in a press release. “We believe such instances are extremely rare and that U.S. poultry companies work hard to prevent them.”

But advocates for poultry workers insisted that companies weren’t doing enough to ensure worker safety and protection.

Meat and poultry workers continue to face multiple hazards in the workplace that put them at great risk.

“Once again, the GAO confirms what experts, workers, and advocates have been saying for years,” said Oliver Gottfried, Senior Advocacy and Collaborations Advisor for Oxfam America. “Meat and poultry workers continue to face multiple hazards in the workplace that put them at great risk, and companies are not doing enough to care for their workers or paint an accurate picture of the real rates of incidents. Oxfam continues to call on the industry leaders – Tyson Foods, Pilgrim’s, Perdue, and Sanderson Farms – to lead the way in implementing changes that will improve conditions for workers in their plants.”

Together, these top four companies control 60 percent of the market. And the poultry industry itself is worth $A February 2016 Northwest Arkansas Workers Justice Center (NWAWJC) report similarly found that poultry companies often subjected people of color and immigrants to wage discrepancies, discrimination, while females experienced sexual harassment.

“It’s clear from the report that workers continue to put their health and well-being on the line to fulfill the meat and poultry industry’s relentless production demands,” Sarah Rich, Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) staff attorney, said in a press statement. “Their injury and illness rates still outpace the rates for manufacturing overall despite the GAO acknowledging that there is ‘underreporting and inadequate data collection’ for injuries and illness in the meat and poultry industry.

The GAO report does provide a glimpse into how conditions have hardly budged for workers in the 11 years since the release of the last federal report on the matter. In response to GAO researchers, OSHA acknowledged that meat and poultry work consists of using “forceful exertions, awkward postures, and repetitive cutting motions” and that it “generally agrees” with recommendations to improve the ergonomics process and hazard training for maintenance staff. But OSHA also cautioned that “the specific steps that you have recommended may not be easily or quickly implemented, due to resource constraints.”

“There should be no doubt that the industry will continue to sacrifice people for profit until there’s regulation to reduce the grueling speed of the processing lines and ensure workplace injuries are properly addressed,” Rich said. “It is time to end the exploitation.”

America’s Biggest Meat Producer Averages One Amputation Per Month


One year ago, a sanitation worker at a meat-processing plant in Missouri lost both his hands in a work-related accident. Two months later, a worker amputated part of his right thumb while running flat steaks over a skinner (a blade that removes the outer layer of meat) in an Amarillo, Texas factory.

“Skinners. Band saws. Wing saws. Hide grippers. The names of these tools tell just part of the story of why these amputations occurred,” wrote Celeste Monforton, a professor of occupational health at George Washington University.

Monforton was referring to the kind of machines that caused 34 injuries at 10 meatpacking plants run by Tyson Foods in the first nine months of 2015 — for an average of one amputation per month.

Monforton compiled a full tally of the amputations, obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request:

Celeste Monforton, via OSHA / Via scienceblogs.com

Iowa Public Radio first covered Monforton’s findings. The details are available thanks to a new Occupational Health and Safety Agency (OSHA) regulation requiring that all work-related incidents resulting in an amputation or hospitalization be reported within 24 hours.

“We don’t want anyone hurt on the job,” a Tyson spokesperson told BuzzFeed News in an email. “We’re continually focused on improving workplace safety and preventing accidents for all of our 113,000 team members.”

Data from OSHA has long been considered inaccurate due to under-reporting by workers and employers, as noted in a report by Oxfam America last year and a Government Accountability Office study from 2009. While plants must report the number of days taken off by workers due to injuries, Monforton told BuzzFeed News in October that plants sometimes keep injured workers on site, sitting idly in offices, to avoid having to record the time off.

The Oxfam America report implicated all four of the country’s largest chicken producers in unsafe workplace conditions leading to avoidable repetitive motion injuries and grisly amputations.

Regis Duvignau / Reuters

Tyson is America’s biggest meat producer, and each week it processes 35 million chickens, 400,000 hog, and 128,000 cattle. The full tally of amputations at its facilities is likely higher than the number obtained by Monforton, which does not include information from Tyson factories in 10 states that run their own OSHA programs.

The Tyson spokesperson said that “almost 500 health and safety professionals work in our 100 or so locations. We have plant safety committees that involve management and hourly workers and provide safety training in multiple languages.”

The company also recently launched new programs to improve workplace safety communication, awareness and education.

“Now more than ever, we’re stressing awareness about surroundings within the workplace and helping shape appropriate safe behavior for our team at all locations,” he said. “We’re constantly reviewing equipment design and our processes to reduce risks throughout our company.”

Cora Lewis is a business reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Lewis reports on labor.

Contact Cora Lewis at cora.lewis@buzzfeed.com.

Poultry processing, a thankless job


Americans love chicken, and the day we love it most is today, Super Bowl Sunday, when we will consume 1.3 billion chicken wings. But how does a live chicken turn into a bag of frozen Buffalo wings? Who's doing the hard work of hanging, trimming and freezing the chicken?

In 2014, over a quarter billion chickens came from the Eastern Shore of Maryland; the state ranks ninth in the country in raising chickens for their meat, and the industry creates almost $1 billion in revenue here. Maryland is also home to the third largest chicken company in the United States: Perdue is an industry giant, having been founded and guided by three generations of the Perdue family, and now employing thousands of workers in plants across the country.

So Maryland is responsible for millions of wings — but we still don't know much about how they get to us. And the companies don't really invite us to find out. However, a recent survey of over 60 poultry workers at several plants in the Delmarva region, conducted by Maryland Legal Aid, Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and others, gives us a glimpse at the reality of life inside the plant.

The survey shows that transformation from bird to wings isn't easy, isn't pretty, and it sure isn't safe. Workers endure cold, wet, slippery and dangerous conditions; they incur a lot of damage to their bodies; they struggle to keep pace with the line; and they earn low wages.

Workers report that despite their long, hard hours, they struggle for respect, even for such fundamental rights as bathroom breaks. One woman who works at a Perdue plant says, "One time they didn't let me go to the bathroom and so I had to relieve myself on the line. A lot of people just leave the line to go to bathroom; and then they lose their job because [the supervisors] say they've abandoned their work." Nearly three quarters (72 percent) of those surveyed knew of workers wearing diapers or relieving themselves on the line.

And poultry processing takes a toll on the body. Rates of occupational illness among poultry workers are five times higher than among all workers in the U.S. Dangers include amputations, cuts and lacerations, slips, trips, falls, respiratory hazards and exposure to dangerous chemicals. One worker at a Tyson plant in Maryland noted, "There are a lot of injuries. In the last week, a lady cut her hand and three others slipped and fell." He says that he has pain and numbness in his hands, and that sometimes his fingers turn black from handling the frozen chicken and cramp up in pain. Three quarters of workers say they've had injuries or pain while working, while 62 percent said they are reluctant or scared to report injuries.

Most commonly, workers suffer musculoskeletal disorders, or MSDs, from the repetitive motions. Poultry workers suffer carpal tunnel syndrome seven times more often than workers in other industries.

These results confirm the recent research by Oxfam America, which reports that the poultry industry is not doing enough to protect workers' health and safety. Instead, the industry tries to paint a portrait of declining incidents of injuries and illnesses, while at the same time urging the federal government to increase maximum line speeds and push the workers even harder.

This is a booming industry that should do better by its workforce. Chicken is the most popular meat in America, and consumption grows every year. Profits are climbing, consumer demand is growing, and executive compensation is increasing rapidly.

Think about the work that goes into those wings consumed on Super Bowl Sunday; and yet you can buy a bag of frozen Perdue Buffalo Style wings, weighing over a pound and a half, for under $6. There's a factor missing in this equation. And that factor is the labor: if workers give their time, sweat, and health for this industry, then the companies can do more to safeguard their health and reward their labors.

 Minor Sinclair (msinclair@oxfamamerica.org) is director of the U.S. regional office of Oxfam America. C. Shawn Boehringer (Sboehringer@mdlab.org)is Chief Counsel of Maryland Legal Aid.

Achoo!! No paid sick leave for 91% of Arkansas poultry workers


Consumers beware! A survey of 500 poultry-processing workers in Arkansas found that 62 percent said they have gone to work when they were sick. Why? Only 9 percent of the workers reported they had access to earned sick leave.

Have the flu? No problem. Come to work anyway and cut those chicken tenders.

Suffering from diarrhea? No worries. Come to work anyway and skin those chicken breasts.

The survey results, based on a representative sample of poultry workers in Arkansas, come from a report released today by the Northwest Arkansas Workers’ Justice Center (NAWJC). The study, “Wage and Working Conditions in Arkansas Poultry Plants,” was conducted by the Unitarian Universalists Service Committee and researchers from UC-Berkeley and UC-Santa Cruz. It adds to the overwhelming evidence assembled by other researchers (e.g., here, here, here, here) on the grim conditions today for workers in the US poultry industry.

I especially appreciate the researchers’ focus on poultry workers in Arkansas. They number about 28,000 with 33 percent identified as Hispanic and 17 percent as Black.  Tyson Foods—the largest poultry producer in the US—has its headquarters in Arkansas. Tyson is the 2nd largest employer in Arkansas (after WalMart.) There’s a good chance that many of the Arkansas workers who were surveyed for the NAWJC’s report come from Tyson plants.

Here’s some of what the Arkansas poultry workers said about working while sick:

  • Many responded that they had worked sick as many as one to two weeks during the past year.
  • When asked why they had gone to work sick, 77% responded that they did not have earned sick leave and needed the money.

And there’s more:

  • 54% said they were afraid of disciplinary action if they missed work while sick.
  • 44% reported that they had been directly threatened with discipline or firing if they missed work because of illness.

It’s hard to believe that a multi-billion dollar poultry industry would not take steps to ensure that employees who are sick can stay home with pay to recover. Is there no concern for infecting others or compromising food safety?

The workers also reported a perverse “point system” which also compels them to go to work when they are sick. One poultry worker explained to the researchers:

“There are so many times I went to work but I am sick. The reason I go to work is because if I don’t go I will get a point. Even if you call in sick and bring a doctor’s note, they still will give you half a point.”

The release of the NAWJC’s report comes on the same day that Tyson Foods reported quarterly earnings to its shareholders. The President of CEO of Tyson Foods, Donnie Smith, said:

“we expect it to be another record year.”

And the company’s performance:

“…resulted in record earnings, record operating income, record margins and record cash flows.”

The company’s quarterly earnings report shows it had more than $9 billion in sales and net earnings of $461 million.  Repeat: $461 million in profit this quarter. This is a company that can’t afford a paid sick leave policy? I searched Tyson’s website, but didn’t find any mention of one.

I did find this about its commitment to animal welfare:

“All Team members, as well as our supplier associates are expected to respect the animals they work with and ensure they are treated in a proper and humane manner.”

Paid sick leave would demonstrate respect and humane treatment by Tyson Foods of its employees and customers.

P.S. Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal reports that Tyson Foods’ Chairman John Tyson was compensated more than $850,000 for private use of a corporate aircraft. He ranks #1 among Fortune 100 company officials for compensation for personal jet travel. By my calculation, $850,000 could cover more than 8,100 sick days for workers who earn $13 per hour.

Posted by Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH of Milken Institute School of Public Health, George Washington University on February 5, 2016

NWA Poultry Workers in Washington D.C.


Members of the Northwest Arkansas Workers' Justice Center are in Washington, D.C., Thursday (Feb. 27) to testify against a proposal aimed at increasing processing line speeds at poultry plants.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is finalizing a rule to increase processing line speeds from 140 birds per minute to 175.

Workers in Northwest Arkansas say this new rule would increase injuries among workers and threaten food safety.

The rule is expected to take effect this April.