Photo: John D. Simmons/The Charlotte Observer
Large corporations often have staggering control over the industries and regions they work in. In Arkansas, multinational corporations like Walmart and Tyson Foods have long had a sizeable influence on the way their respective industries operate. However, such far reaching control has the ability to hide issues within the industry such as wage cutting, discrimination and human rights abuses.
Multinational corporations can have a positive impact on society in theory. It’s true that they create a significant amount of jobs for community members. That they use their power to work with and give back to the different communities they work in. And at times, there’s the opportunity for upward mobility in these large corporations. However, these positive aspects can seem irrelevant when human rights issues and worker exploitation documented in reports are kept from the public eye.
As with any company, Tyson Foods relies heavily on the many different people that help to make up their workforce.
“We wouldn’t be a successful company without our Team Members,” Tyson Foods explained in a statement. “We care about them and we’re continually working to make sure they’re treated fairly. We believe in fair compensation, a safe and healthy work environment and providing our Team Members with a voice in the workplace.”
Despite this, at least two reports have found that Tyson Foods and other major poultry producers in Arkansas have not entirely lived up to their commitment to their workers.
In February of this year the Northwest Arkansas Workers’ Justice Center (NWAWJC) released an elaborate report outlining severe worker exploitation and human rights abuses in Arkansas poultry plants. Even so, Tyson Foods’ hold on the industry caused the report to receive little attention in state and nation wide.
Magaly Licolli, Executive Director of the NWAWJC, explained that, while Tyson Foods has responded to the report, although she cannot provide specific details of the response, the corporation has not made enough substantial adjustments pertaining to the report’s findings.
Community members rally outside a Tyson Foods shareholders meeting. Springdale, AR. Feb 5th, 2016.
When corporations exert this much control over their respective industries, the rights and concerns of the workers aren’t always represented. Licolli described how many local nonprofit and nongovernmental organizations who would normally stand up for the rights of workers are hesitant to do so for fear of losing out on the funding that corporations like Tyson Foods provides for them.
For example, Tyson Foods exhibited their influence in May of this year at an event organized by the Hispanic Women Organization Of Arkansas (HWOA) in which volunteers from the NWAWJC were collecting signatures.
“We were trying to collect signatures to demand that poultry workers in Arkansas are treated with dignity and respect,” Licolli said. “However, the director of this organization (HWOA) verbally attacked our volunteers because Tyson Foods had sponsored the event.”
Consequently, organizations like the NWAWJC are left to carry the weight of trying to provide a voice for thousands of victimized workers. Though their efforts to raise awareness through petitions and other outlets are critical, they often fail to generate the awareness that a group effort could.
“Large corporations have a substantial amount of control, especially in Arkansas,” Licolli said. “Many of the laws in place in Arkansas are pro-corporation and pro-employer, and they don’t always protect the rights of the workers.”
According to the report, 12 percent of all poultry processing jobs are concentrated in Arkansas. In northwest Arkansas alone, where the majority of poultry production is located, there is a much larger population of foreign-born residents than the entire state. Sadly, the report also found that it was these foreign-born workers who were most negatively affected by disparity and discrimination.
In an effort to combat any discrimination or abuse in the workplace, Tyson Foods has implemented a variety of strategies to give their workers a voice. These efforts were further expanded upon in the company’s statement.
“Our human rights practices are grounded in our Code of Conduct, Core Values and Team Member Bill of Rights,” the statement said. “In addition, we provide a confidential, toll-free help line for workers to report concerns without the fear of retaliation. We have grievance systems in place as well as communications committees involving management and hourly Team Members.”
However, despite these efforts, Licolli and her staff found through their report that the needs of the workers were not being met.
Foreign-born workers experience increased discrimination for a variety of reasons. Language barriers often account for much of this discrimination. Many foreign-born workers do not speak or comprehend English as well as those who were born in the U.S. As a result, when these workers experience discrimination in the workplace they are unable or hesitant to speak up for themselves as a result of not having obtained fluidity in the language yet.
Furthermore, speaking out against exploitation and mistreatment is not always an easy thing to do, especially when the demographic of people primarily being affected are foreign-born. The report found that often times these workers are unable or unwilling to speak up for fear of repercussions within the workplace. They simply could not afford to see their positions in the workplace negatively affected. Large corporations also have a vested interested in minimizing their concerns to keep up with production and public perception.
“Speaking up is difficult,” Licolli said. “These corporations have extreme power in these regions and do a variety of things to keep their public perception positive. They put money back into the community and help feed the homeless, which can overshadow the issues within the company.”
In particular, Tyson Foods has made a point to make a difference in the communities they work in. At the beginning of March Tyson Foods donated a truckload of chicken to the Delta Network Food Band in Pine Bluff, Ark. The donation was part of the “Be a Hunger Hero” campaign, which aims to help feed children in need. While these initiatives are extremely positive and beneficial for the communities involved, the donations can act as a mask for the corporation’s internal issues.
What’s more, Tyson Foods promotes themselves through various means in a way that makes it seem like the corporation has nothing but positivity to bring to the workplace and the different communities they work in. In a promotional video from June 2015 in Clarksville, Ark., Tyson Foods made a generous donation to a local school to help purchase an innovative language and literacy software program. Promotional materials like this showcase the company’s bright spots, but do nothing to address issues within the company.
“When community members see these corporations giving back they think that everything is fine,” Licolli said. “And corporations like Tyson Foods avoid the conversations that reports like ours have generated, instead highlighting the good they do for the community, which overshadows the exploitation and abuses in their plants.”
While some may argue that Tyson Foods hasn’t done nearly enough to improve conditions for their workers, they have made considerable steps forward in improving their working environments. Overall transparency and the company’s workforce and culture were the highlights of Tyson Foods 2015 Sustainability Report. The report explained that “with an ongoing commitment to collecting team member feedback and taking action to address key areas, we are building a sustainable model for shaping a high-performance team and culture to drive future success.”
Whether or not Tyson Foods and other multinational corporations are doing enough to improve working conditions in the poultry industry can be debated, but they must be doing more. The U.S. agriculture industry produces $42.8 billion annually in sales and employs over 300,000 workers nationally. And these numbers haven’t shown any signs of slowing.
Working conditions need to be a top priority for corporations. When workers are offered stability and treated with dignity and respect, everybody wins. Not only does it lead to a better product, but it takes care of the essential component of this billion dollar industry: the people.
Unitarian Universalist Association Committee (UUSC), Oxfam America and The NWA Workers Center gathered together to plan direct actions on February 4th, 2016.
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.