When you pick up a package of chicken at the supermarket, it’s easy not to think about how it was produced.

Unfortunately, many people who work in processing plants face dangerous and inhumane conditions.

Photo: Earl Dotter

The safety conditions in poultry processing plants can pose a threat to both workers and consumers. Unhygienic environments combined with fast line speeds can result in injury and illness for workers and contamination of meat.

Arkansas produces more than one tenth of the nation’s broiler chickens. The poultry industry generates an estimated $34 million in annual revenue into the state’s economy, and with almost 28,000 workers, poultry processing is the fifth largest private employer in Arkansas.

Despite the success of the state’s poultry industry much of the labor force in the industry are subject to personal injuries, lost wages, unreasonable production rates, and even long term disabilities due to the high demands placed on them in their work environments.

Employer-mandated processing quotas mean workers often have to rush and strain themselves to cut, debone, or package enough poultry to keep up. This intense pressure often causes workers to injure themselves, as well as engage in behavior that compromises the safety of the product. The problems caused by substandard hygiene and safety at poultry processing plants are compounded by the widespread lack of earned sick leave among poultry workers, which results in many workers coming to work while sick.

In February of 2016 the Northwest Arkansas Workers Justice Center (NWAWJC) released a report uncovering the labor conditions facing some of Arkansas’s most vulnerable residents.

NWAWJC surveyed hundreds of workers across the state, and found many workers are subject to injury and inhumane working conditions due to the production expectations placed on them by their employers.

Workers reported an average processing speed of 46 pieces or 89 pounds per minute. As a result of the stress of meeting these demands many workers report developing repetitive motion injuries, and musculoskeletal disorders like carpal tunnel, as well as cuts and other serious wounds. In this study, the third most prevalent injury reported by workers was injury or pain due to a repetitive motion wound.

Those who reported being injured on the job also reported the fastest line speeds, in some cases almost double the piece/pound per minute rate of those who had not been injured.

One worker said “the line speed is very fast, way too fast. The majority of people, who work there, harm their fingers; their hands due to the line speed...lots of people get hurt.”

Almost six out of ten workers surveyed reported that they suffered from injuries or health issues while working at the poultry plant, the most common being cuts, falls, and headaches.

Production rates also lead to contamination hazards of the meat. Many workers reported that they have gone to work while being sick. One of the underlying problems is that workers in this industry are unable to accumulate paid sick leave. The low wages make it unfeasible for them to miss work due to an illness and so they work while being sick and report seeing many violations that contaminate the meat. Over a third of workers surveyed reported that they do not have access to sinks, hot water, or soap. Which further increases the potential for contamination.

One worker said “then you first step in there, it’s gonna be dark. I mean, it’s freaking nasty, I mean disgusting. Sometimes it got me to the point where I don’t even, like, wanna eat chicken or anything. Like, feathers be everywhere, crap be everywhere, I mean, chickens be running around all over the floor. I mean, it’s gross, man. . . . It’s awful.”

Many workers do not report these violations and are fearful of coming forward because of future ramifications and the possibility of losing their jobs. Hard working Arkansans depend on income to support their families and can not risk becoming unemployed. Many keep the violations to themselves and make the most out of their opportunities.

We need stricter enforcement of federal guidelines to protect these vulnerable workers in our state. The voice of the poultry worker has been silenced by industry leaders.

We need to stand up for our neighbors who supply over ten percent of the country's chicken products. The report exposes that this industry has been transformed to a version of modern day slavery.

Stand with us as we ensure that hardworking Arkansans are treated with respect and dignity and that safety standards are enforced.   

Learn more about the Northwest Arkansas Workers Justice Center. 

Policy Recommendations

· Policymakers should increase enforcement of wage and hour laws, including increasing penalties for violations and increased enforcement resources.

· Line speeds should be regulated and reduced, to reduce injury and contamination.

· Paid sick leave should be guaranteed for all workers.

· Policymakers and companies should work to reduce discrimination and harassment in the workplace, including enforcing anti-discrimination laws and creating strategies to ensure equitable mobility for workers of color and foreign-born workers.

· Companies and policymakers should ensure equitable access to bathroom breaks to protect worker health and dignity.

· Workers should be encouraged to organize collectively to work for better conditions.

Resources

Working Conditions in Arkansas Poultry Plants