When “Juan,” a worker at an Alabama poultry plant fell while hoisting an 80-pound box of chicken, his supervisors ordered him to get back to work. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), “X-rays later showed two fractured vertebrae. He was fired, and the employer has not paid any of his medical bills.”
Juan is just one example among thousands in Alabama’s giant poultry industry, where workers are subjected to brutal, dangerous working conditions that pose a constant risk of injury and illness, all for the sake of providing American dinner tables with plentiful, cheap chicken.
According to the SPLC, workers on the line in Alabama’s poultry processing plants “stand almost shoulder-to-shoulder as chicken carcasses zip by on high-speed processing lines” as they “hang, gut or slice more than 100 birds in a single minute” for eight hours a day or longer. In result, nearly three-quarters of the workers interviewed for the SPLC report suffered some kind of significant work-related injury or illness. Like most low-wage workers in the U.S., these Alabama workers lack health insurance.
“Poultry workers often endure debilitating pain in their hands, gnarled fingers, chemical burns, and respiratory problems – tell-tale signs of repetitive motion injuries, such as carpal tunnel syndrome, and other ailments that flourish in these plants,” the SPLC report says.
But complaining to federal authorities such as the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) isn’t viewed as a feasible option for workers, many of whom are immigrants and are treated as “disposable resources by their employer,” the SPLC explains. “Threats of deportation and firing are frequently used to keep them silent.”
“OSHA, which regulates the health and safety of workers in this country, has no set of mandatory guidelines tailored to protect poultry processing workers,” the SPLC explains. “Workers cannot bring a lawsuit to prevent hazardous working conditions or even to respond to an employer’s retaliation if they complain of safety hazards or other abusive working conditions. Many live in rural areas and have no other way to make a living, which means they must accept the abuse or face economic ruin.”
As a result, employers easily and effectively promote a “climate of fear” within the workplace that prohibits workers from complaining about injuries received on the job or even seeking medical treatment for them.
Tragically, conditions may get even worse for Alabama’s poultry industry workers. According to the SPLC, “the U.S. Department of Agriculture is poised to enact a new regulation that will actually allow poultry companies to increase the speed of the processing line – from a maximum of 140 birds per minute to 175.” The new rule, ironically, is “part of the agency’s overhaul of its food safety inspection program, which will likely usher in more worker injuries and a food supply fraught with more risks to consumers.
“This is the face of the modern poultry industry in Alabama – an industry unfettered by serious regulation and blessed with a vulnerable workforce that has lacked a voice in the halls of government and has little power to effect change,” the SPLC report states.