Study Finds Worker Abuse In Arkansas Poultry Industry

Feb 5, 2016

Photo of a poultry worker from the Northwest Arkansas Workers' Justice Center report on conditions in the state's poultry facilites.
Credit Northwest Arkansas Workers' Justice Center

A report issued Friday by the Northwest Arkansas Workers' Justice Center shows large percentages of the state's poultry workers face wage violations and workplace abuse.

Of the nearly 500 workers surveyed, 91 percent were found to have no paid sick leave and 62 percent reported some form of wage theft. Fifty-one percent reported discrimination on the job, including women who were not allowed bathroom breaks by male supervisors.

 

The Springdale-based Center partnered with human rights advocacy groups Oxfam America and the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee to compile the results.

 

Amber Moulson, a researcher with the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, says the findings are methodologically sound.

 

“Once people provided answers to the surveys, the researchers were able to code them to essentially notate which type of answer someone had. And that allows us to have these percentages,” Moulson says.

 

The following is from a summary of some of the report's findings. 

On wages:

 

"62% of surveyed workers report experiencing some sort of wage and hour violation. Example: non-payment of wages; cost of protective gear deducted from pay.

 

21% of foreign-born workers reported being paid with payroll cards. These cards can have advantages, as they can be used like debit cards, but there are disadvantaged because fees and payments can be difficult to track. 38% of those who are paid via payroll card reported having money “disappear.” And in 74% of those cases, the money was never recovered."

On benefits:

Only 9% of surveyed workers report that they have earned sick leave. Another 38% reported having unpaid sick leave, often on a points system that discourages workers from taking time off. A full 32% report that they have no sick leave at all.

62% reported that they had gone to work while sick. When asked why, 77% responded that they needed the money and had no earned sick leave. 54% reported that they worked because they were afraid of disciplinary action if they missed work. 44% reported that they had been directly threatened with discipline if they missed work.

22% of surveyed workers reported being fired because they missed work due to sickness."

 

On discrimination/harassment:

 

"Women, in particular, cite gender discrimination in the way bathroom breaks are withheld by male supervisors. Some have urinated on themselves because they were not granted breaks when needed.

51% of surveyed workers report being discriminated against at work.

44% report being verbally or sexually harassed."

Of those who reported being harassed, Black and Latino workers reported high rates of being harassed by a supervisor or lead (Black-71%, Latino-63%). White and API workers were more likely to report harassment by a coworker or combination of the two."

 

On health/safety:

 

"31% of workers reported seeing contamination in the meat. There was a strong correlation between workers who did not have sick leave and those who saw contamination. Workers who come to work sick because they cannot take time off can infect other workers, perpetuate illness, and contaminate meat.

Over half of surveyed workers reported that they had had a work-related sickness or illness. But for those with earned sick days, that number was only 49%, while for those with no sick days, it was 71%.

32% reported that they or someone they knew was punished for reporting health and safety or other issues to a supervisor.

Workers reported that a lack of proper training was a major cause of work related injury.

Those who reported being injured on the job also reported the fastest line speeds, in some cases almost double the piece/pound per minute rate of those who had not been injured."   

Moulson of the UUSC says researchers interviewed workers with several poultry companies in Arkansas.

“And in fact we don't name companies specifically in the report because it is unfortunately such a systemic issue. We don't want people to become defensive in the way that they might if people are named, but that in fact that we see progress in changing the system for workers throughout different companies,” Moulson says.

 

Nevertheless, Arkansas-based Tyson Foods, one of the country's largest poultry producers, issued statements in response to the report. In a video posted online, Tyson Human Resources executive Hector Gonzalez says the company is committed to treating workers fairly.

 

“Our human rights practices are grounded in our code of conduct, our core values and our team member bill of rights. In addition, we have a toll free help line to allow team members to report concerns without fear of retaliation,” he says in the video.

 

Responding to some of the report's findings of workplace dangers, Gonzalez says the company takes appropriate precautions in protecting workers.

 

“We don't want anyone hurt on the job, which is why we employ almost 500 safety and health professionals, have plant safety committees and provide safety training in multiple languages,” Gonzalez says.

 

The report's release coincided with a Tyson Foods shareholders meeting, where news came that the company nearly double first-quarter profits compared to the same period last year. 

Spokesman Tom Super of the American Chicken Council, which advocates for the poultry industry, also shared a statement in response to the NWA Workers' Justice Center report. He says gains have been made over the last 30 years to increase workplace safety at poultry plants.

The "incidence of occupational injuries and illnesses within the poultry sector’s slaughter and processing workforce has fallen by 81 percent in the last 20 years and continues to decline," he says, citing national figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a branch of the US Department of Labor:

"Perhaps more than any other industry, the poultry industry over the last several decades has focused its energies on the prevention of workplace injuries and illnesses, especially musculoskeletal disorders like carpal tunnel syndrome, by recognizing the value of implementing ergonomics principles. Companies also adhere to Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) recommended guidelines that further help protect poultry workers.

While the past 25 years has seen a dramatic decrease in the numbers and rates injury and illnesses occurring in the industry, the poultry industry will continue to seek new and innovative ways to protect our workforce. The health and safety of our workers are of utmost importance. 

We have to compete for the workforce in the communities where we operate, therefore we have to offer competitive wages, in addition to benefits. In most cases, our line workers make more than 150% of the federal minimum wage, in addition to benefits and paid time off."

A graph shared by a spokesman for the National Chicken Council with data from Occupational Safety and Health Administration showing the national rate of decline in of poultry worker injuries and illnesses from 1994 to 2014. The report issued by the Northwest Arkansas Workers' Justice Center focused on Arkansas-based poultry workers and did not assess trends over several years.