Poultry industry troubled by Oxfam claims

by Erica Shaffer
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 A report by Oxfam American claims poultry workers are frequently denied bathroom breaks.
Oxfams report released a report about workers denial of bathroom breaks in the poultry industry. 

BOSTON – Stakeholders in the US poultry industry are raising questions about a report from an anti-poverty and social justice organization that claims workers at some of the country’s largest poultry processors are frequently denied bathroom breaks.

In its report titled “No Relief: Denial of Bathroom Breaks in the Poultry Industry,” Oxfam says workers are denied bathroom breaks because supervisors are under pressure to maintain processing line speeds. This demanding pace of work robs workers of their dignity and health.

“Workers struggle to cope with this denial of a basic human need,” the report states. “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.”

While acknowledging the troubling nature of the claims in the report, industry stakeholders emphasized that policies are in place to accommodate bathroom breaks.

“The health, safety and respect of our employees is very important, and we value their contributions in helping to produce our food,” the National Chicken Council said in a statement. “We’re troubled by these claims but also question this group’s efforts to paint the whole industry with a broad brush based on a handful of anonymous claims. We believe such instances are extremely rare and that US poultry companies work hard to prevent them.

“Although individual practices vary by company, restroom breaks are planned for any production line. Most facilities also employ extra people to cover for production workers who request a bathroom break. In addition, medical-related situations are taken into account and accommodations are made.”

At Pilgrim’s Pride Corp., a unit of Sao Paulo, Brazil-based JBS SA, bathroom breaks have not been raised as an issue on the internal employee satisfaction surveys nor in “third-party sustainable safety culture surveys.”

“Protecting and ensuring the health and safety of each and every Pilgrim's team member is core to who we are as a company,” the company said in a statement. “We care for our people and work hard to provide a safe, respectful working environment.

 “Any allegations of the nature claimed by Oxfam, if proven, would be clear violations of company policy and would result in disciplinary action. Our team members have the opportunity to report any grievances they might have either through our dispute resolution process, their union-negotiated grievance and arbitration process or, anonymously if they desire, through our ‘Pride Line,’ a real-time, 24 hours a day telephonic reporting system.”

Tyson Foods said in a statement that the company has extra workers who can step in for workers who need a bathroom break. The company does not tolerate the refusal of requests to use the bathroom, the company said.

“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.

“We also already use an independent audit firm to assess working conditions in our plants to make sure our Team Members are being treated with dignity. The auditors interview dozens of workers and focus on areas like worker treatment, compensation and safety.

“We listen to our Team Members through many channels to make sure they’re being treated respectfully. In addition to their supervisor, they can talk to someone in human resources, plant management or one of our chaplains. They can also anonymously contact the Tyson Help Line or Tyson Web Line, which are managed by the company’s Ethic and Compliance office and are available 24 hours a day in multiple languages.”

Oxfam America called upon leading US poultry companies such as Tyson Foods, Pilgrim’s, Perdue Farms and Sanderson Farms to “lead the way in ensuring that workers have bathroom breaks necessary to stay healthy, safe, and dignified at work.” Sanderson Farms declined to comment on the report.

 

Coinciding with the release of the report, Oxfam America and the Northwest Arkansas Workers’ Justice Center planned to join poultry workers in Springdale, Arkansas, which is home to Tyson Foods, to deliver to the company a petition signed by 100,000 individuals demanding improved workplace conditions.

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