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Poultry Workers Speak Out on Work Conditions

As Americans turn their attention to Thanksgiving preparations next Thursday, WMRA’s Jessie Knadler talks to workers inside the poultry industry of Rockingham County.  Some of them allege break-neck processing speeds, unsafe conditions and denial of benefits for injuries sustained trying to bring cheap poultry to consumers.

Here’s a Thanksgiving anecdote for you: A woman gets her hand slammed by a speeding, 30-pound turkey.

It sounds bizarre, but that’s what Maria says happened to her while working on the line at one of the big poultry plants around Harrisonburg — Cargill, Pilgrim’s Pride, Perdue.  They’re all here.

I met with Maria and about 12 other poultry workers in a dim, windowless room at the back of a Hispanic grocery store in Harrisonburg. 

MARIA [speaking through an interpreter]: A turkey hit me and knocked me over.

Maria’s accident happened during the run up to Thanksgiving last year when production increases from 35 turkeys per minute to 50. Think about that: Almost one turkey per second.  Turkey….turkey….turkey…. Eviscerated whole birds hung from hooks travel quickly down an assembly line. Maria’s job was to bag them.

MARIA:  Two came at once when I was trying to bag one and they threw me down. My hand is everything.

Maria is from Central America. She didn’t want to use her real name or mention the specific plant because she still works there.

Injuries in the poultry industry are very common. The frenetic pace, cold, slippery conditions and exposure to dangerous chemicals make it one of the most dangerous jobs there is, according to the U.S. Government’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Amputations and sickness are not uncommon. Rates of carpal tunnel resulting from repetitive motion are seven times the national average.

But it’s what happens after a worker gets injured that is of most concern. In Maria’s case, she reported the injury of her right hand to management.

MARIA: Look, they sent me to the killing area to cut intestines. They bandaged my arm. And I worked with my other arm for eight hours.

Cutting turkey parts with scissors using her left hand thousands and thousands of times a day caused a muscular disorder in that arm. Now both arms were injured.

MARIA: They sent me to the so-called nurse and the so-called nurse said, No, you can’t work like that. And they sent me home for five months. They didn’t pay me a cent.

Maria eventually had to have surgery.  She said the company paid zero workmans’ compensation. Maria had worked for this company for seven years.

Other workers in that room repeated very similar stories, which corresponds closely to findings in a recent report by the anti poverty group OxFam. The general narrative goes like this: Worker gets hurt due to dangerous conditions. The company minimizes concerns. The worker goes right back to work for fear of being fired, gets re-injured. The company either reassigns the worker to another duty, fires them or sends them home without pay or access to benefits.

DEBORAH BERKOWITZ: This is an industry that has just gotten away I think with really some of the lowest labor standards.

Deborah Berkowitz is a senior fellow for the National Employment Law Project, and a former OSHA official.

BERKOWITZ: The company’s obligation under the state workers’ compensation law that they have to provide adequate medical care, rehabilitation and they have to provide lost wages to get the worker back to work and that is clearly not even happening here.

I reached out to a few poultry processors in the area for comment. Because of the anonymous nature of the complaints, most processors chose not to respond. But Cargill emailed a statement saying the company “[complies] with all regulations…we believe a safe workplace is paramount for people employed at our processing facility.” The National Chicken Council highlights government statistics showing that rates of injury and illness in the poultry industry are at an all-time low.

BERKOWITZ: These statistics are self-reported by the industry to the government.

Berkowitz says companies have a history of under reporting injuries and limiting medical care to the level of first aid -- bandages, aspirin – to avoid having to report it to OSHA. The workers themselves often don’t realize what’s going on.

BERKOWITZ: I think the industry purposely locates and hires the most vulnerable workers…workers that may not speak the language and workers that clearly don’t know their rights.  For the industry, workers are expendable.

Harrisonburg is a big refugee resettlement city. Arriving Iraqis and El Salvadorians in need of work invariably find their way to one of the many poultry plants. It becomes a Catch 22 – immigrants land badly needed jobs, but the jobs can be dangerous and exploitative. Annual turn over in factories can hit 100 percent.

The poultry industry, meanwhile, is booming. Americans eat 100 pounds of poultry per person per year, more than any other protein. Four companies – Tyson, Pilgrim’s Pride, Sanderson Farms and Perdue -- control the majority of the market. A class action lawsuit has been filed accusing producers of artificially inflating the retail price of chicken.  Poultry workers? They make between $8 and $12 an hour.

BERKOWITZ: Consumers have made their voices heard about no antibiotics in the poultry feed…but consumers also need to be aware workers are not treated humanely and they’re not treated with dignity.

Berkowitz will be speaking at a Poultry Workers rally in downtown Harrisonburg on Tuesday, November 22nd.