Oxfam Calls Out ‘Big Chicken’ for Rampant Labor Abuses

Bruce Vail November 4, 2015

Tyson Foods raised its workers' pay in advance of the Oxfam campaign's launch. (Redfishingboat (Mick O) / Flickr)

One of the world’s most promi­nent hunger-fight­ing orga­ni­za­tions has launched a pub­lic­i­ty cam­paign aimed at improv­ing wages and work­place safe­ty in U.S. chick­en pro­cess­ing plants.

Oxfam kicked off the cam­paign with a report released Octo­ber 26 that details sub­stan­dard wages and ben­e­fits, unsafe work­ing con­di­tions, and a cul­ture of hos­til­i­ty to labor rights for the esti­mat­ed 250,000 work­ers employed in chick­en plants. Titled Lives on the Line: The Human Cost of Cheap Chick­en,” the report was pro­duced in con­sul­ta­tion with the Unit­ed Food & Com­mer­cial Work­ers (UFCW) union, Nation­al Coun­cil of La Raza, the South­ern Pover­ty Law Cen­ter and work­er cen­ters such as the North­west Arkansas Work­ers’ Jus­tice Center. 

Minor Sin­clair, direc­tor of Oxfam Amer­i­ca’s domes­tic pro­gram, believes the strat­e­gy has already had an impact. Three days before the report’s release, the country’s largest poul­try com­pa­ny, Tyson Foods — which knew the report was com­ing — announced it would be rais­ing the base wage to $10 (from $8 or $9) at some of its chick­en plants.

Oxfam’s report zeroes in on four large com­pa­nies said to con­trol about 60 per­cent of chick­en pro­duc­tion in the Unit­ed States: Tyson Foods, Pilgrim’s Pride, Per­due, and Sander­son Farms. These are ver­ti­cal­ly inte­grat­ed indus­tri­al cor­po­ra­tions, Oxfam notes, that direct­ly con­trol most phas­es of pro­duc­tion, dis­tri­b­u­tion and mar­ket­ing. They also use a wide array of dif­fer­ent brand names. If you buy chick­en any­where in the U.S., whether it’s in a gro­cery store, a restau­rant, or a school cafe­te­ria, you are almost cer­tain­ly buy­ing from one of these com­pa­nies,” says the report.

With its Behind the Brands“ cam­paign, Oxfam applied a sim­i­lar strat­e­gy of apply­ing con­sumer pres­sure on glob­al food cor­po­ra­tions such as Nes­tle and Coca-Cola. Sin­clair says the new report aims is to build con­sumer pres­sure for chick­en cor­po­ra­tions to vol­un­tar­i­ly reform their busi­ness prac­tices, prompt­ing a race to the top.”

Spring­dale, Ark.-based Tyson Foods announced Octo­ber 23 that it will be rais­ing its min­i­mum wage for some chick­en workers:

The move, effec­tive Novem­ber 1, affects hourly pro­duc­tion, main­te­nance and refrig­er­a­tion work­ers at 51 of the company’s chick­en plants. This includes rais­ing the start­ing pay for pro­duc­tion work­ers at almost 40 plants to at least $10 an hour. The start­ing rate at some facil­i­ties had pre­vi­ous­ly been in the $8 to $9 range. 

This change in the start­ing rate, along with oth­er increas­es of vary­ing amounts for expe­ri­enced pro­duc­tion, main­te­nance and refrig­er­a­tion work­ers, means the aver­age hourly pay for those who have been on the job for more than a year will be more than $12 an hour. Top hourly pro­duc­tion pay in Tyson Foods’ chick­en oper­a­tions exceeds $16 an hour.

Main­te­nance and refrig­er­a­tion work­ers at the 51 chick­en plants will also expe­ri­ence increas­es of vary­ing amounts. As a result, top pay for some main­te­nance jobs will reach $23 an hour while the high­est pay for cer­tain refrig­er­a­tion jobs will be $26 an hour. 

Tyson Foods’ pres­i­dent of poul­try Noël White told the Arkansas Demo­c­rat-Gazette that the raise was sim­ply aimed at remain­ing com­pet­i­tive and improv­ing employ­ee reten­tion. Sin­clair, how­ev­er, notes that Tyson was aware of the report and the tim­ing of its release. We want­ed their input into the report and they received draft ver­sions before it went pub­lic,” he says.”We can’t say for cer­tain whether the raise was a direct reac­tion, but the tim­ing cer­tain­ly sug­gests that.”

The Oxfam report may also have influ­enced an Octo­ber 26 Tyson announce­ment of a new pilot project aimed at reduc­ing work­er injuries com­pa­ny-wide, Sin­clair says.

An indus­try trade orga­ni­za­tion, the Nation­al Chick­en Coun­cil, pro­duced a full-length rebut­tal to Oxfam’s safe­ty claims, avail­able here.

Amber Sparks, a spokesper­son for the UFCW, pro­vid­ed In These Times with this com­ment about the state of the poul­try industry:

Poul­try work­ers in the Unit­ed States suf­fer extreme­ly high rates of injury, earn pover­ty lev­el wages, and are often stuck in a work envi­ron­ment that thrives on fear and retal­i­a­tion. In the meat­pack­ing indus­try, the stan­dards for work­ers in the poul­try indus­try are the low­est across the bar. UFCW works to raise that bar and is fight­ing to set a new stan­dard in the poul­try indus­try. By com­ing togeth­er, and with the pro­tec­tion of a union con­tract, UFCW poul­try work­ers are set­ting a new prece­dent in the indus­try with bet­ter wages, bet­ter ben­e­fits, and bet­ter schedules.

The preva­lence of bad wages, unsafe work­ing con­di­tions and anti-union prac­tices detailed in the report comes as no sur­prise to the advo­cates work­ing on behalf of chick­en plant work­ers. The report doesn’t pro­vide much new infor­ma­tion, but is wel­come nev­er­the­less, says John Whitak­er, Pres­i­dent of the Mid-South Coun­cil of the Retail, Whole­sale and Depart­ment Store Union (RWD­SU). The Mid-South Coun­cil rep­re­sents work­ers at 13 so-called kill plants” and nine oth­er de-bon­ing” oper­a­tions in Alaba­ma, Mis­sis­sip­pi, Ten­nessee, Flori­da, Louisiana, Vir­ginia, and Ohio, includ­ing plants oper­at­ed by Tyson and Pilgrim’s Pride, he says. 

RWD­SU, an inde­pen­dent affil­i­ate of UFCW, is active­ly engaged in union orga­niz­ing at poul­try sites in South­ern states (the union had a major elec­tion vic­to­ry at a Pilgrim’s Pride plant in Alaba­ma in 2012), and is engaged in wage strug­gles and work­place safe­ty issue on a dai­ly basis, Whitak­er says. If Tyson is rais­ing the min­i­mum wage, then that’s good for all the work­ers,” he says. It’s going to put pres­sure on the oth­er com­pa­nies to do the same.”

Both Whitak­er and RWD­SU Mid-South Coun­cil Orga­niz­ing Direc­tor Randy Hadley say they believe the Oxfam cam­paign will be most effec­tive if it can con­vince com­pa­nies like Tyson to extend improved labor stan­dards to the company’s many non-union con­trac­tors. For the most part, the big com­pa­nies like Tyson play by the rules [at their own plants], but that’s not the case for all their con­trac­tors,” says Whitak­er. It doesn’t help the work­ers if they raise wages with one hand and out­source a lot of de-bon­ing work to non-union with the other.”

I think we may need to put the focus more on some of the small­er play­ers, and shut down these sweat­shops,” Hadley says. And make no mis­take, there are chick­en pro­duc­tion sweat­shops in oper­a­tion out there.”

Oxfam aims to make these facts known to the gen­er­al pub­lic, so that pres­sure can be brought to bear, Sin­clair says. He adds that Oxfam doesn’t involve itself direct­ly in union orga­niz­ing activ­i­ties, but is sup­port­ive of the efforts of UFCW and RWD­SU to raise stan­dards across the board.

Bruce Vail is a Bal­ti­more-based free­lance writer with decades of expe­ri­ence cov­er­ing labor and busi­ness sto­ries for news­pa­pers, mag­a­zines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’s Dai­ly Labor Report, cov­er­ing col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing issues in a wide range of indus­tries, and a mar­itime indus­try reporter and edi­tor for the Jour­nal of Com­merce, serv­ing both in the newspaper’s New York City head­quar­ters and in the Wash­ing­ton, D.C. bureau.
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