On 9 May 2016, anti-poverty and social justice advocacy group Oxfam released a report alleging that poultry workers were subjected to deplorable working conditions, among them that they were routinely denied bathroom breaks and forced to wear diapers.
A summary of the published report (titled: “No relief: Denial of bathroom breaks in the poultry industry”) condensed claims made by workers:
Chicken is the most popular meat in America, and the poultry industry is booming. But workers on the processing line do not share in the bounty. Poultry workers 1) earn low wages of diminishing value, 2) suffer elevated rates of injury and illness, and 3) often experience a climate of fear in the workplace.
Despite this, though, workers themselves say that the thing that offends their dignity most is simple: lack of adequate bathroom breaks, and the suffering that entails, especially for women.
The top four chicken companies control roughly 60 percent of the domestic market (Tyson Foods, Pilgrim’s, Perdue, and Sanderson Farms), and they can and should implement changes that will improve conditions for poultry workers across the country.
Oxfam’s 15-page report [PDF] said that life at processing plants remains grim and dangerous, and women suffer disproportionately:
Routinely, poultry workers say, they are denied breaks to use the bathroom. Supervisors mock their needs and ignore their requests; they threaten punishment or firing. Workers wait inordinately long times (an hour or more), then race to accomplish the task within a certain timeframe (e.g., ten minutes) or risk discipline.
Workers struggle to cope with this denial of a basic human need. They urinate and defecate while standing on the line; they wear diapers to work; they restrict intake of liquids and fluids to dangerous degrees; they endure pain and discomfort while they worry about their health and job security. And it’s not just their dignity that suffers: they are in danger of serious health problems.
The situation strikes women particularly hard. They face biological realities such as menstruation, pregnancy, and higher vulnerability to infections; and they struggle to maintain their dignity and privacy when requesting breaks. Supervisors deny requests to use the bathroom because they are under pressure to maintain the speed of the processing line, and to keep up production.
Oxfam named four poultry producers in their report (Tyson Foods, Pilgrim’s, Sanderson Farms, and Perdue), and approached all four for comment on the claims. Of the four, Oxfam said only Tyson and Perdue responded. Tyson’s statement questioned the validity of the report, citing Oxfam’s refusal to disclose the names of the workers with whom they spoke about the bathroom breaks:
We care about our Team Members, so we find these claims troubling. However, since Oxfam America has declined to share the real names and locations of those making the allegations, it’s difficult for us to address them or gauge their validity. We can tell you we’re committed to treating each other with respect and this includes giving workers time off the production line when they need it. Restroom breaks are not restricted to scheduled work breaks and can be taken at any time. Our production supervisors are instructed to allow Team Members to leave the production line if they need to use the restroom. Not permitting them to do so is simply not tolerated.
Perdue was less concerned about identifying workers, but also cited a lack of sufficient information to follow up on the claims. That company stressed that employees could anonymously report “illegal or unethical” conduct in Perdue facilities:
The health and welfare of our associates is paramount and we take these types of allegations very seriously. The anecdotes reported are not consistent with Perdue’s policies and practices. Unfortunately, we do not have enough information to investigate the validity of these complaints.
After an internal review, it does not appear that these associates have taken advantage of Perdue’s Open Door Policy or other available options to voice their concerns. As part of our people-first philosophy, associates have the right to be heard by all levels of management to resolve a conflict or misunderstanding through the Open Door Policy. This allows them to speak to any level of management, not just their immediate supervisor. In addition to Peer Review and Management review processes, we offer an anonymous toll-free hotline to report illegal or unethical activity in the workplace. Calls made to this number will be kept confidential, and associates don’t have to give their name if they don’t want to.
As Oxfam’s report made headlines, Tyson and Perdue answered media questions. A spokesman for the former told the Washington Post that Tyson was unable to authenticate the claims, as did a representative for Perdue:
Gary Mickelson, the senior director of public relations for Tyson Foods, expressed consternation in a follow up e-mail about the report. “We’re concerned about these anonymous claims and while we currently have no evidence they’re true, are checking to make sure our position on restroom breaks is being followed and our Team Members’ needs are being met.”
Mickelson said he has met with officials of Oxfam America in the past to talk about their concerns. “We’ve told them that while we believe we’re a caring, responsible company, we’re always willing to consider ways we can do better,” he said in an e-mail. “We do not tolerate the refusal of requests to use the restroom.”
Perdue, on the other hand, didn’t leave open the possibility that its workers were being subjected to the conditions cited in the report. Julie DeYoung, a company spokesperson, said an internal revenue failed to corroborate Oxfam’s findings, citing the company’s policy, which allows line workers to take two 30-minute bathroom breaks over the course of an eight hour shift.
“If a department is short-staffed that day, there may be times it is difficult to provide immediate coverage,” DeYoung said in an e-mail. “If an associate has a health or other reason why they need more frequent restroom breaks, they can visit the onsite Wellness Center for support services or talk with Human Resources to request an accommodation for their condition.”
Tyson told reporters that some footage was available for the company to review, but Perdue did not provide a response to the question.
While the investigation of such claims fell under the jurisdiction of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the agency was estimated to inspect less than one percent of all workplaces in 2013.