Poultry workers in Arkansas.
Throughout the month of May El BeiSMan’s Editorial Board will be investigating the labor movement in the United States. This is the first part of a three-part series of articles focusing on labor exploitation and the corporate hold on the industry.
Global meat consumption has been a hot button issue recently with regard to the industry’s negative impact on the environment. In particular, growing meat consumption worldwide and the industry’s extensive water use has the potential to further contribute to the global water crisis impacting cities like São Paulo in Brazil and the American West. Intertwined with the damage the meat industry is doing to the environment is a crisis of labor exploitation, and Arkansas’s poultry industry is in the thick of that mess.
Last February The Northwest Arkansas Workers’ Justice Center released an extensive report, ‘Wages and Working Conditions in Arkansas Poultry Plants,’ detailing labor exploitation and dangerous working conditions in Arkansas’s poultry industry. With the help of various foundations and partners such as the University of California-Berkeley Food Labor Research Center, the report outlined health and safety risks, wage manipulation, discrimination and harassment at Arkansas poultry plants.
Arkansas is a critical place to examine the state of workers in the poultry industry. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA),12% of all poultry processing jobs in the United States are concentrated in Arkansas. In addition, the country’s top five broiler producing companies, Tyson, Pilgrim’s Pride, Sanderson Farms, Perdue Farms and Koch Foods, are all located in Arkansas. Tyson Foods’ headquarters is also located in Springdale, Ark. and over 20% of Tyson Foods’ U.S.-based employees work in Arkansas.
Although as a whole, the demographics of Arkansas’s population do not mirror the demographics of those working in the state’s poultry processing plants. Overall, the state is over 70% white and non-Latinx, with African-Americans representing another 15% of the population and Latinxs at 7%. In contrast, Arkansas poultry workers are 43% white non-Latinx, 33% Latinx, 17% African-American, and 6% Asian. Among them, 58% are male while 42% are female. In the report workers revealed dangerous and difficult working conditions, with foreign-born workers and workers of color disproportionately suffering from employment law violations.
Despite the size and production of the industry that now makes up 11% of total U.S. agricultural sales, there’s a great disparity between wages and the growth of the industry. Poultry workers in Arkansas are paid well below a living wage and earn just above minimum wage, which puts them just above the poverty line in Arkansas.
Additionally, their wages have risen 25% less than all other private sector workers’ wages. The report found that nationally, a poultry workers’ average wage was estimated at about $12.50 per hour and $26,000 annually. Even for families with two people earning this, the wage falls well below a living wage for the nonmetropolitan U.S. South ($71,000) according to the Department of Labor’s Lower Living Standard Income Level (LLSIL) calculations. But all too often these workers have difficulties even obtaining their earnings.
Among all of the surveyed workers, foreign-born workers received their pay differently than U.S.-born workers. Eight out of ten U.S.-born workers received their earnings through a direct deposit into their bank account. Conversely with foreign-born workers, 37% were paid with a combination of cash and check, 31% in check alone and 21% through a payroll card. Direct deposit is arguably the easiest method for receiving and tracking earnings. However, for those who do not have access to opening or maintaining a bank account, typically low-income and foreign-born workers, tracking pay and documenting wage and hour law violations can be much more difficult.
Sixty two percent of the surveyed workers reported experiencing wage theft in a variety of formats. From deductions for supplies, not being paid for working overtime or for the total number of hours worked, workers’ wages were skimmed. As most of Arkansas’s poultry workers are foreign-born, the chance that these workers have limited English speaking proficiency also enables companies to trim earnings without seeing any pushback from their workers. The Justice Center’s report shows a stark contrast between the success of the poultry industry and the livelihood of its workers.
Most stunning of all the statistics were the findings on worker benefits. A staggering 91% of workers reported having no earned sick leave, and nearly two-thirds (62%) reported working while sick. Workers explained that they had no choice but to work sick due to “not being able to afford to take a day off, being directly threatened with disciplinary action for taking a day off or from just simply being afraid of disciplinary action.” These numbers support findings of mistreatment and manipulation of those handling our nation’s poultry in Arkansas.
Workers are not the only ones who suffer as a result of having to work sick and in fast-paced environments, the poultry suffers as well. Thirty one percent of those surveyed reported having seen contamination of the meat, while 54% of workers claimed they were “forced to do things under time pressure that might harm the health and safety of the consumer.” Contamination can range from human germs from sickness or a lack of gloves, to contamination from chemicals and dirt and dust. Working conditions at these poultry plants has sacrificed the well-being of workers and the product to an astonishing degree.
With increased processing quotas due to the industry’s growth, the speed of production has also increased and injuries have become more frequent. Rates of injury and illness were quite high for all workers, but Latinx and foreign-born workers were both more likely to report having suffered from one or more injury. However, only 5% reported that they received medical treatment after filing a successful workers’ compensation claim. These high intensity environments have led to workers straining and rushing themselves while cutting, deboning and packaging to keep up. And one could argue that these conditions, coupled with employees’ lack of stability and fear of being exterminated for taking sick leave, has led to a production process that has compromised the health of the product and the workers.
However, if these conditions are so poor, why don’t the workers speak up for healthier working conditions? Of those surveyed, 51% reported experiencing some form of discrimination primarily based on their race and ethnicity. In particular, Latinxs and foreign-born workers were the most likely to report that they had been discriminated against. This is to say that the workers who are most negatively affected by difficult working conditions and scrutiny don’t necessarily have an avenue to voice their concerns. And when inspectors come in to observe these conditions, the atmosphere is altered to appear proficient and up to safety standards.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) can and has made numerous recommendations to better regulate line speeds and focus more on ergonomics, the study of people’s efficiency in their working environment, and workers’ safety. In spite of this, OSHA has no legal mandate to regulate processing speeds to protect workers. Oversight and enforcement have continually appeared lax not only within the processing plants, but also within OSHA itself.
Forty seven percent of workers reported not knowing how often OSHA inspectors visited. However, of the workers who did know, 25% reported that the employer received notice beforehand and 91% reported that they were treated differently when OSHA was visiting.
OSHA’s visits are designed to provide an accurate rating of health and safety conditions within the working environment. If employees are notified of these visits and instructed to act differently from their employers, it can be argued that these OSHA inspections don’t allow inspectors to get an accurate view of the extent to which health and safety violations are occurring. In short, the oversight administration designed to protect workers is falling short of providing the necessary resources to halt worker exploitation.
An analysis of the U.S. livestock sector conducted by the USDA last month has predicted that poultry production and consumption will rise over the next 10 years, surpassing levels of the past decade. With this predicted rise in the production and consumption of meat in the U.S., working conditions and the industry’s effect on the environment need to become top priorities. As the United States becomes a more non-white nation, sooner or later there will be enough voices united together in protest of the dangerous and compromising conditions of our nation’s poultry industry.
Parker Asmann is a 2015 graduate of DePaul University with degrees in Journalism and Spanish, along with a minor in Latin American and Latino Studies. He is currently residing in Chicago while focusing on issues of social justice and human rights. He is a member of El BeiSMans Editorial Board.