Civil Eats: Despite Some Progress, Poultry Workers Still Face Workplace Woes

Zalasar’s experience is similar to that of many poultry workers in the U.S., who have been found to suffer high rates of carpal-tunnel syndrome and severe injuries including amputation as a result of the quick and forceful motions they carry out over and over each day on the line.

Unfortunately for Zalasar and others, conditions could get even worse if a recent industry proposal to allow increased line speeds moves forward.

On September 1, however, the National Chicken Council petitioned the USDA to waive the 140 bpm limit and allow plants to operate at speeds of 175 bpm. (The USDA has announced a public comment period on the petition ending December 13.)

While Tyson’s past actions haven’t lived up to its promises, Sinclair said, he feels hopeful the company is committed this time. “Their new leadership is really credible,” he said. “We’re taking their commitment at face value.”

Not everyone feels that way, however. Debbie Berkowitz, a senior fellow with the National Employment Law Project (NELP), a nonprofit working for low-wage workers—and chief of staff for OSHA between 2009 and 2013—does not trust Tyson’s promises. “They said the same things for years when I was at OSHA,” Berkowitz said.

Berkowitz points to the lack of specifics—the absence of immediate changes, effective today—as a cause for concern. “The pledge did not say, ‘Today, we will increase the number of relief workers on the line to allow employees to step away when their hands hurt or they need to use the bathroom,’” Berkowitz said. “It didn’t say, ‘Today, we will put chemicals in enclosed systems so workers are no longer exposed to them.’”

“They [poultry companies] are all low-road employers,” Berkowitz added. “They all treat their workers as if they’re expendable.”

Berkowitz and other animal, worker, and consumer advocates disagree. The USDA spent two years studying the effect of line speeds on worker and consumer health before capping the line speeds at 140, and no additional evidence exists to compel them to revisit the decision, Berkowitz said.

“The industry knows this, so they’re not asking the USDA to revisit the decision; they’re saying, under this new administration, you’re letting companies do whatever they want, and we want to be exempt from this rule,” Berkowitz said. “I’ve never heard of that before: That’s like saying wink-wink-nod-nod, we don’t have to comply with the minimum wage.”

The American people have not spoken out for workers in the same way they have for animals, Berkowitz said. But if they did, it would make a big difference: “Consumers can have an enormous impact in telling the industry to lift its labor standards,” she said.

Zalasar, too, wants consumers to think about the individuals behind the chicken on their plates. “Consumers don’t consider the sacrifices people make to get the chicken to them,” she said. “Sometimes people just throw chicken out.” Before you toss uneaten chicken in the trashcan, she said, think about the people who endured pain and discomfort to get it to you.

Read the full article on Civil Eats.

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