We missed this last week: The Northwest Arkansas Workers’ Justice Center released a study of wages and working conditions in Arkansas poultry plants after conducting surveys of some 500 workers on the processing line.
Researchers at the University of California and the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee assisted with the study. Oxfam America, the development NGO that’s campaigning for better conditions for American poultry workers, also played a role.
Among the findings: Wage theft is common in the industry. 62 percent of those surveyed said that they’d experienced some sort of labor/wage violation, including having the cost of safety gear deducted from their paycheck.
Noncitizens (which doesn’t necessarily mean “undocumented,” although it often does) are especially vulnerable to being cheated out of their pay. Sometimes they’re paid with quasi-debit cards, since immigrants often don’t have established bank accounts. There’s nothing wrong with such a set up as long as it’s honest, but payroll cards often contain hidden fees and no paper trail. “38% of those who are paid via payroll card reported having money ‘disappear.’ And in 74% of those cases, the money was never recovered,” the report says.
Then there’s the simple fact that the wages are too low for such a harsh job — although in a state as poor as Arkansas, these figures are actually around the state’s median wage of $14/hour. (I think it’s fair to say a shift on the chicken processing line is surely below the median workplace quality-of-life metric, though):
Arkansas poultry workers make, on average, approximately $13.84 per hour ($28,792 per year). Even in a household with 2 adults making this wage ($57,584 total), this is well below living wage for a family of 4 ($71,000 is considered a living wage in nonmetro South).
There’s much more. Punitive sick leave policies keep workers on the job, raising food safety concerns along with labor issues. Almost a third of those surveyed “reported that they or someone they knew was punished for reporting health and safety or other issues to a supervisor.”
Female workers often recall discriminatory practices and harassment. Here’s one quote from a female worker:
When I was pregnant, I had to constantly go to the bathroom, and a supervisor told me, ‘Why don’t women hold it like I (male supervisor) have to hold it all day?’ I felt there was a factor of discrimination taking place at my workplace. Another factor is the fact that as women, we have our menstrual cycle, so we need to go to the bathroom more frequently, and male supervisor do not comprehend that, they don’t recognize that as women we take a little longer to assess our needs and feel clean. Instead of letting us use the bathroom, they threaten us, humiliate us to the occasion of filing claims with human resources to discharge us.
Incidentally — contrary to popular belief in many quarters, not every Arkansas poultry plant worker is Latino:
Of the 500 surveys, 13% of the surveyed poultry workers were Caucasian, 20% were African American, 46% Latino, 21% Asian Pacific; 50% women and 50% men. These surveys were done statewide which include workers from Ft. Smith, Russellville, De Queen, Clarksville, Pine Bluff, Jonesboro, Van Buren, Berryville, Danville, Decatur, amongst many others. Amongst the data statistics, the Center targeted poultry workers from the following poultry industries: Tyson, Cargill, George’s, Ozark Mountain Poultry, Butterball, Simmons, Pilgrim’s Pride, Southeast Poultry, Wayne’s Farm, as well as small poultry farms and hatcheries.
KFSM Channel 5 news reported on the study last week and tried to talk to Tyson workers. Here’s what they got from the company:
The company denied requests. However, they did provide a video with interviews from employees. The featured employees claimed the working conditions at Tyson were proper, and fair.
Tyson sent the following statement to 5NEWS:
“We wouldn’t be a successful company without our Team Members. We care about them and we’re continually working to make sure they’re treated fairly. We believe in fair compensation, a safe and healthy work environment and providing our Team Members with a voice in the workplace. Our company has met several times with the human rights group Oxfam America and has also reached out to the NWA Workers’ Justice Center to talk about what we do to help our poultry Team Members succeed.”