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Latinos Make Up Majority of U.S. Poultry Workers Enduring Inhumane Conditions, Yet Many Decide to Stay

First Posted: May 14, 2016 10:53 AM EDT
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Oxfam campaigners dressed as Trump and other world leaders protest inequality at G20

Poultry workers suffer inhuman treatment at processing plants, where they are mocked by supervisors, talked down to, and forced to wear diapers in lieu of taking a bathroom break, according to a damning report released Wednesday.

Oxfam America began their investigation by interviewing numerous poultry workers over a three-year period, beginning in 2013. In "No Relief: Denial of Bathroom Breaks in the Poultry Industry," they detail how workers endured disrespectful superiors and life-threatening conditions in fear of losing their job.

"Workers struggle to cope with this denial of a basic human need," the report read. "They urinate and defecate while standing on the line, they wear diapers to work; they restrict intake of liquids and fluids to dangers degrees; they endure pain and discomfort while they worry about their health and job security. And it's not just their dignity that suffers: they are in danger of serious health problems."

Among the companies named are Perdue Farms Inc., Tyson Foods Inc., Pilgrim's Pride Inc., and Sanderson Farms Inc.; each part of an industry that raked $32.7 billion in 2014, an uptick of six percent from the previous year.

Only a handful of workers said their bathroom needs were met, most coming from unionized facilities. About one-third of processing plants are unionized, leaving most without job security, or means of knowing what their rights are.

Women were particularly affected. Many who were either pregnant or in menstrual cycles were denied state-mandated breaks because supervisors were under pressure to maintain the speed of the processing line. Investigators note the account of an Arkansas woman, Rebecca, who said supervisors prioritized the needs of men over women.

"They don't consider that we have more gear to remove, or the fact that the bathrooms are too far away; just walking towards them our time is up," Rebecca said. "When we have our [menstrual] cycle, we need to go more often to the bathroom, but they don't let us, they don't like it."

America's Large Latino Poultry Workforce

Poultry is big business in the United States. The National Chicken Council suggests poultry farmers earn more than the average U.S. household, which stands at around $51,000, and those with loans also have lower charge-off rates than agricultural farmers.

Chicken producers can be profitable if partnered with the right company, but little is known about the people who harvest poultry for consumption.

The National Center for Farmworker Health estimates 250,000 workers are employed at 174 factories across the country. Documenting their ethnic background is difficult because many are either undocumented or don't possess the right paperwork, but the NCF projects that about half of the country's workforce is Hispanic. "Chicken catchers," in general, tend to be undocumented male Latinos.

One of few states tabulating poultry plant workers is Arkansas, where the Northwest Arkansas Workers' Justice Center recently surveyed 500 workers across dozens of cities.

The Feb. 1 report found a majority of respondents - 46 percent - were Latino. Over half reported discrimination, and 63 percent of Hispanics said they were harassed by a supervisor or lead. Latinos averaged the longest tenure yet 94 percent said they were never offered a promotion.

As Oxfam America noted in a follow-up questionnaire to their original report, leaving their jobs is difficult for workers with families. Many live in rural areas with few other options. Undocumented individuals and those with work permits have even less reason to leave.

They have sons, daughters, wives, relatives in Mexico and Central America depending on the little pay they receive, anything from minimum wage to $11 an hour regardless of their work ethic or longevity.

The prospect of finding new work is terrifying compared to the semblance of job security poultry plants offer, as harsh as conditions may be.

Fallout from the Oxfam Report

The NCC preemptively released a statement Tuesday stating they are troubled by the report's claims "but also question this group's effort to paint the whole industry with a broad brush based on a handful of anonymous claims."

Immigration and human's rights advocacy groups still used the opportunity to scorn poultry producers.

The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union -one of the nation's largest unions and representative of thousands of food workers and - released their own statement Friday urging for better workplace protection.

"The indignity with which poultry workers are being treated in America has to stop," the statement read. "Workers need to know they have a right to organize and that organized workers have more opportunities to protect themselves from this type of abuse."

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