One of the sacred responsibilities of clergy is to serve as witnesses. We are called into many moments in people’s lives. We see, we listen, and then when necessary, we share the story, the truth. So this week Tuesday I opened the newspaper. Front page, I learned that Tyson Foods second quarter profits were $133 million over second quarter of 2015. The company is making a lot of money.
Then, I spent the afternoon reviewing the new report, “No Relief: Denial of Bathroom Breaks in the Poultry Industry." Central to that text, you learn that 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.
Tuesday evening, I gathered to listen to a large group of poultry industry employees, primarily from Tyson, who shared their stories. They reported many workplace violations, but like the Oxfam report, the violation that was the most demeaning to them and remarkable was denial of bathroom breaks. For a variety of reasons, from lack of “floats,” to arbitrary decision-making by supervisors, to strict rules limiting the length of time for bathrooms to impossibly short lengths, poultry workers, women in particular, are being denied bathroom breaks.
Instead, they are being told to limit their fluid intake. If they do speak up, they often experience systemic retaliation. They live in constant fear both of retaliation, and of the punitive point system for breaks and sick days that leaves them constantly worried for their jobs.
Here’s the thing. As a pastor, I have friends at many levels of Tyson and other poultry companies, from the lines up to corporate headquarters. One of the ways the companies like to talk is to emphasize that they are a team. Tyson even calls their employees team members.
But if you go to Tyson corporate for a visit, you’ll find a very different environment than on the line. Bathrooms are very accessible. Last time I was at Tyson corporate, I was offered a bottle of water, not told to limit my water intake. If you spend time talking to line workers and then spend time talking to Tyson employees at other levels of the organization, it’s clear that “team” means something very different depending on what level of the organization you work.
In their written policies, Tyson leads the industry on workers’ rights. The problem is in the implementation. We are hearing again and again, both in the Oxfam report, and in personal stories from workers all over, that there is a systemic denial of bathroom breaks, among other workplace violations.
Undoubtedly, because this has been in the press, there will be some defensive letters to the editor defending corporate policies. Those letters will also probably mention how much good these companies do in our community, and in the world. But we can’t let those kinds of letters deflect us from looking directly at the real problems in the industry. We are paying thousands of people poverty level wages to process the chicken we all consume, and many peop
le (just not the workers on the line) are getting rich off of how successfully such chicken is selling.
To be completely frank, this report tells us that many poultry workers are dehumanized in the workplace enough to end up urinating or defecating on themselves, and this is happening on the lines where the chicken we all consume is being processed.
Tyson Foods, Pilgrim’s, Perdue, and Sanderson Farms together control almost 60 percent of the poultry market and employ over 100,000 poultry workers. As industry leaders, they should lead the way in ensuring that workers have bathroom breaks necessary to stay healthy, safe, and dignified at work.
To accomplish this, companies should make changes in policy; develop specific commitments that workers have access to bathroom breaks whenever they are needed;
make these policies public, submit policies to monitoring and verification by independent, third-party organizations, and make results of audits public;
create a system that enables workers to file a grievance about being denied bathroom breaks, and ensure that they do not suffer any retribution for doing so;
review existing literature and consult workers, ergonomists, and occupational health experts to determine proper rest break length and frequency;
eliminate or modify the point system, including in relation to bathroom breaks.
In addition, we call upon Tyson and other poultry industry leaders to conduct reviews of internal practices at each processing plant to determine sufficiency of current staffing levels, and their impact on replacement opportunities at each stage of the processing process; make sure staffing levels at each stage of the processing process (from receiving to packaging) are sufficient to provide workers the opportunity for replacement when they need a bathroom break (or in the event of injury, illness, or need for rest); implement an ongoing independent monitoring program to assess compliance with company policy and the law; carry out an anonymous survey of the workforce about their access to adequate bathroom breaks, and publish a summary of the findings and lessons learned; document and communicate results of investigation to employees, along with plans for corrective/preventative measures to be taken in response, including any plans for updated policies.
Tyson, we are witnesses, and we see you. Please don’t deflect or minimize the problem. Make things right. Treat all workers with dignity.
[Sent as a letter to the editor, May 11th, 2016]