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Doing Time ... on the Poultry Processing Line
by Joan Zacharias
The Viva Vine: vol #4, no #2: March / April 1995

Like "a Dickensian time warp..." That's how Wall Street Journal reporter Tony Horwitz described conditions in the nation's poultry processing plants (12/1/94) -- low wages, horrible working conditions, harsh work rules, dead-end, nonunion, mind-numbing, monotonous and dangerous. Horwitz ought to know: He actually worked undercover at two of these plants and interviewed 50 workers at other plants. His account is chilling.

"The work often was so fast-paced that it took on a zany chaos, with arms and boxes and poultry flying in every direction. At break times I would find fat globules and blood speckling my glasses, bits of chicken caught in my collar, water and slime soaking my feet and ankles and nicks covering my wrists..."

Americans' insatiable appetite for chicken (averaging 72 pounds per person last year) is murder on chickens, but it has also created a living hell for the 221,000 poultry processing workers as well. Plants are clustered in a "broiler belt" across the Rural South, in small, company towns that provide a steady stream of cheap, unorganized labor, primarily poor, uneducated African-American women and undocumented Hispanic immigrants. Union organizing attempts have met with harassment, intimidation, firing or reassignment to the worst jobs.

Normally, we think of tough, risky jobs as offering higher pay, but not in the poultry industry. Wages start at about $5/hour and top out around $6-$7. Only the "live hangers" -- those who hang the struggling birds by their feet before they are stunned, slaughtered, machine-plucked and rehung for processing -- get a few dimes more.

After the birds are rehung, headless and upside down, the workers "on the chain" process them frantically, in assembly-line fashion, at the rate of 91 chickens per minute, the maximum allowable speed. Among the grisly jobs on the line are the "butthole-cutter," who slits the bird open; and the "gut-puller," who yanks out the innards. Others chop off the limbs, pull off the skin and separate the organs.

Automation has "de-skilled" the process so much that each worker may make the same cut thousands of times a day, resulting in cumulative trauma injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome. Only the meatpacking and auto assembly industries have worse records.

Horwitz describes the many dangers facing poultry workers: Floors are slick with wash water and chicken bits; workers constantly cut themselves and others with their sharp knives and scissors; and the cold temperatures in the plant numb their fingers, which increases the risk of injury.

Hygiene is deplorable -- the line moves so fast that chicken parts often end up on the floor, and workers are so tired that they just pick them up, put them back on the line and keep moving. Horwitz reported that there was no soap in the bathroom where he worked.

The poultry barons seem to have a particular hangup about bathrooms. Workers can be fired for leaving the line without permission. According to Horwitz, people said they sometimes peed on themselves because they could not get a supervisor's attention and were too scared to leave the line without being excused. One worker described the indignity of such rules, commenting, "I'm a grown woman. I don't like being told when I need to go to the bathroom." And breaks can be few and far between: Horwitz said he got just one five-minute break in five hours at one plant.

Where are the regulators? That's a good question. Clinton's Secretary of Agriculture, Mike Espy, recently resigned when he was caught accepting "favors" (payoffs) from Tyson Foods, the nation's largest poultry producer. In exchange for dragging his feet on reform of the inspection system, Espy was wined and dined by the Tysons, receiving such bribes as football playoff tickets and scholarship money for his girlfriend.

OSHA (the federal Occupational Safety & Health Administration) is not staffed adequately to inspect plants the way they should be, so the agency relies on worker complaints. But workers are often afraid or do not know their rights. The result: injury, illness and death. Last year, for example, a worker's legs were amputated by an exposed drive shaft in a Mississippi plant. Horwitz interviewed a priest who was told by "Jorge" that "he has seen coworkers run over by forklifts, lose fingers and go numb in their arms and hands."

In a horrible plant fire in North Carolina in 1991, 25 poultry processing workers were killed and 55 were injured when their escape was blocked by padlocked fire doors (management was trying to prevent employees from stealing chicken parts). Not one government agency had inspected the plant in its 11 years of operation, even though the company had two plant fires at other locations the year before.

The misery of the poultry workers is surpassed only by the misery of the billions of birds slaughtered each year. When you eat chicken and other factory-farmed animals, in the words of author Alice Walker, "It's like you're eating misery...a bitter life." Food should be about celebration, life, health and sustenance; not salmonella, artery-clogging cholesterol, violence and death.

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