When you buy your chicken in the supermarket, or eat it at KFC, the label will be missing some critical information about the people who helped make your meal possible. It won’t say, for example, that the workers who processed that chicken might have been wearing diapers at the time. The label might let you know the chicken is organic, or free-range, or free of antibiotics—but not that the workers who handled, cut, and packaged that chicken were compelled to soil themselves in order to keep their jobs.
What would be shocking in most workplaces happens far too often in poultry plants: poultry workers say they routinely are denied time to use the bathroom. They urinate and defecate while standing on the line; they wear diapers to work; they restrict intake of liquids and fluids to dangerous degrees; they endure pain and discomfort while they worry about their health and job security. And it’s not just their dignity that suffers; they are in danger of serious health problems.
In a new report, No Relief, Oxfam America reveals a dark reality of life on the line for the roughly 250,000 poultry workers in the US: the routine denial of time to use the bathroom. While the poultry industry enjoys record profits and pumps out billions of chickens, life inside the processing plant remains grim and dangerous. Workers earn low wages, suffer elevated rates of injury and illness, and toil in harsh conditions.
In my work at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, I witnessed the dangers: poultry workers stand shoulder to shoulder on both sides of long conveyor belts, most using scissors or knives, in cold, damp, loud conditions, making the same forceful movements thousands upon thousands of times a day, as they skin, pull, cut, debone and pack the chickens. The typical plant processes 180,000 birds a day. A typical worker handles 40 birds a minute.
To keep the lines running at all costs, the plants often deny poultry workers time to use the bathroom. Too many workers tell stories about urinating on themselves or witnessing coworkers do the same. Not only is it embarrassing and degrading, it’s also extremely uncomfortable to feel the warm urine in the frigid environment and to wear wet clothing in 40 degree temperatures. Hanson, one of the workers featured in the report, works at a Tyson plant in Arkansas and had the disheartening experience of seeing his own mother urinate on the line; she now wears diapers to work to avoid it happening again.
The report cites a Delaware plant where workers were brave enough to inform safety inspectors that they were not allowed to use the bathroom; the federal government issued the company a serious violation. This is a shocking violation to find in any plant in the 21st century—let alone a food processing plant. Yet, this very same company (and you can’t make this stuff up) has decided that its chickens deserve better treatment and has pledged to give them only vegetarian feed. To repeat: they won’t allow workers to use the bathrooms, forcing them to urinate on themselves, but they will buy vegetarian feed for the chickens.
In North Carolina, the problem is so large and so urgent that workers at a major KFC supplier recently launched a campaign demanding the right to bathroom breaks when they need to go. In a survey of hundreds of poultry workers in Alabama, nearly four in five said they were not allowed to use the bathroom. And a recent survey of workers in Minnesota found that 86% of respondents said they get only two bathroom breaks in a week. Oxfam’s report also cites a lawsuit against a Mississippi poultry company in which workers say their supervisors charged them for using the bathroom. Poultry workers are humiliated, degraded, and put at risk of serious, painful health issues including urinary tract infections, because supervisors are under pressure to keep up production.
Access to a bathroom is required under US safety laws, but it would take over 100 years for the nation’s understaffed worker-safety agency to visit every workplace just once.
Poultry companies could fix this problem if they wanted to: they simply need to staff their plants so workers can leave the lines when they need to use the bathroom. Many other industrial production plants have systems in place to make sure workers can use the bathroom. But the poultry industry cuts corners on worker safety—to enrich the few owners at the top. They spend a lot of money convincing consumers of the goodness of their products yet risk the health of workers—and there may be implications for food safety as well.
The top poultry companies are enjoying record profits and booming sales. Tyson Foods, Pilgrim’s, Sanderson Foods and Perdue together control most of the US chicken market. They can and should take steps to alleviate suffering on their production lines, including ensuring workers get adequate breaks.
When next you consume chicken—at home, in a restaurant, in a school cafeteria—consider the hands that brought it to your plate. And wonder if they enjoyed one of the most basic rights to dignity and humanity: the opportunity to use the restroom when needed.