Poultry Workers Promised a Safe, Transparent, and Just Work Environment
In April 2017, Tyson Foods pledged to have better working conditions for its poultry workers. This major announcement comes on the heels of active work done by Oxfam America and a coalition of organizations. They released Lives on the Line in 2015, and built consumer support through campaigning and media coverage to make the poultry industry accountable for health, safety, and liberty of its workers.
The report focused on studying the big four of the United States’ poultry industry, Tyson Foods, Pilgrim’s, Perdue and Sanderson Farms. These four dominate 60 percent of the domestic market in the United States, with Tyson contributing 23 percent, the largest, to the chicken market. Despite the technological advancements made in the poultry industry, it heavily relies on manpower on the line production “from hanging the chickens to cutting wings and legs to pulling breasts and trimming skin,” the report explained.
The report brought into the spotlight the unjust workplace conditions and presented cases of workers at Tyson who suffered conditions such as low wages—a meagre $11 an hour; very little breaks between work—either for using bathrooms or for sharpening their tools. This has led to numerous health conditions and injuries for the workers, ranging from prostrate problems to carpel tunnel syndrome, asthma and other respiratory ailments. Cases of lack of healthcare facilities on site, appropriate and adequate compensations for the same; the eminent environment of fear the workers worked under for speaking out about these harsh conditions; and exploitation of vulnerable population; were very common answers. These conditions were prevalent in spite of the existence of “Bill of Rights” for the workers at Tyson indicating the glaring gap between the ground reality and the company policies.
Tyson Foods with its new Commitment for Continuous Improvement in the Workplace hopes to address these issues. It has committed to work towards safety of its line workers and bring in transparency in workplace by publicly reporting, “annual progress on injuries and illnesses and retention rates by key business unit,” and also “publicly sharing the results of third-party social compliance audits through its corporate website at the end of the fiscal 2017,” stated the company website.
The company is committed to providing regularly scheduled breaks for its workers, keeping the focus on the worker and food safety issues and recalibrating line speeds accordingly, and has increased wages depending on the roles. Through trainings the company is hoping to disseminate information on Bill of Rights for workers, Code of Conduct, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) rules and regulations, and various other platforms that workers could use to raise concerns. They are also set to roll out new initiatives on compensations, focusing improvements in long-term and short-term disability coverage, and assistance for education and adoption.
Oxfam and other workers organization partners have welcomed Tyson’s efforts to creating safer, better and sustainable workplace environment. Executive Director of Northwest Arkansas Workers’ Justice Center (NWAWJC), Magaly Licolli, said in an interview with Oxfam, “I’m hopeful about the new commitments from Tyson, and we really expect they’re honest about it, the workers are really hoping for better conditions, and more breaks. I think the fact that the company has new leadership is an opening to develop a relationship with them to commit to changes.” She agrees, “I do think the company wants to change,” but was also quick to point out that, “we’re also very cautious. The workers know it’s not the end, it’s just the beginning of a long fight. We’re going to keep monitoring what’s going on in the plants, and see how they implement the changes.”
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