The multiemployer pension crisis
Put people ahead of profits in poultry
When Oscar arrived in Alabama from Miami, he had hoped to apply the mechanical engineering skills he'd learned in Cuba to his new job at a poultry processing plant. Instead, he was asked to fold chicken wings on the production line.
As bird carcasses sped by him, he grabbed, twisted, and folded their wings into the position the company wanted. His quota was 40 wings a minute, or about 18,000 a day.
To meet this benchmark, he had to repeat the same motions thousands of times, putting pressure on his wrists and hands. After about a month, he was diagnosed with tendinitis and carpal tunnel syndrome, hand and wrist injuries resulting from overuse. When he could no longer be of service to the company because of his work-related injuries, he was fired.
The grueling speed of processing lines can inflict debilitating injuries on laborers of all stripes. Workers like Oscar face constant health and safety risks in an industry that systematically exploits them in the name of profit.
And yet, Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) wants to make these dangerous lines run even faster, putting thousands of people at even higher risk of injuries.
Right now, the maximum speed for chicken plant lines is a whopping 140 birds per minute (bpm), set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Workers stand for hours in front of this rapid, relentless flow of chickens-cutting, slicing, twisting, cooking, freezing and packaging. All the while, they are exposed to heat, cold, chemicals and noise.
Collins is urging Agriculture Secretary and former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue to raise line speeds to 175 bpm (up from 91 in 1999-nearly twice as fast). In so doing, he is placing private profit over the health and safety of workers, and disregarding consumers who expect uncontaminated poultry.
For those of us in the civil rights or food safety world, it's déjà vu. It's been barely five years since Agriculture Department officials last proposed a line speed increase to 175 bpm. That move was rejected following a two-year battle that included public comment, debate and input from stakeholders.
As part of our efforts to help poultry workers, the Southern Poverty Law Center met Oscar four years ago. Following our interview with him and hundreds of other poultry workers in Alabama, we released an in-depth report on the hazardous conditions they face.
As we detailed in the report, workers stand almost shoulder-to-shoulder in these frigid plants as chicken carcasses zip by on high-speed processing lines. In addition to repetitive motion injuries, poultry workers are often forced to keep working with gnarled fingers, chemical burns and respiratory problems.
These workers are often among society's most marginalized members. Plants are typically located in small cities and towns in the midst of rural communities, where economic opportunities are limited. Consequently, these workers are expected to tolerate severe and sometimes unlawful conditions.
In a recent letter signed by us and 39 other organizations, we implored Secretary Perdue to take the health concerns of poultry workers more seriously.
Increasing line speeds are driven by growing demand for poultry. Chicken has dethroned beef as America's favorite meat, and profits are soaring.
Last year, Tyson Foods, the largest poultry producer in the country, bragged about $461 million in profits over a three-month period.
With more consumers opting for chicken, the health of poultry plant workers as well as consumers themselves is, quite literally, on the line.
Slowing down the line can ensure safer conditions for workers and safer food for consumers. To keep lines going at full speed, workers are denied bathroom breaks, and many end up soiling themselves while handling chickens on the production line. Additionally, faster line speeds mean more sick chickens can get past split-second eyeball inspections.
If Secretary Perdue follows through with the request from Collins and the poultry industry to increase line speeds, it will demonstrate just how hollow the Trump administration's promises to protect our nation's forgotten workers truly are, not to mention consumers.
In the name of people like Oscar-crippled and discarded by an exploitive industry-we urge Secretary Perdue not to further jeopardize the safety of the 250,000 men and women who risk their health to feed their fellow Americans every day.
In one of the country's most dangerous industries, workers should be treated as human beings, not disposable machine parts.
Naomi Tsu is deputy legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Atlanta. Tsu oversees the SPLC's legal and advocacy work on behalf of immigrants in the Deep South. She represents clients who have experienced wage theft, discrimination, human trafficking and other abuses.