Last month Oxfam America released a report on the poultry industry, “Lives on the Line, The Human Cost of Cheap Chicken.” The report shows how the American demand for cheap chicken has not only driven growth in the $50 billion industry, but has also driven up the line speed – the number of birds per minute that workers are expected to process. Oxfam says that “the upper limit on line speed has increased from 70 birds per minute in 1979, to 91 in 1999, to 140 today.” 140 is the maximum line speed set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but the industry would like it to be even higher. The report estimates that in order to keep up with this production rate workers repeat the same motion at least 20,000 times per day. Unsurprisingly, poultry workers experience high rates of repetitive strain injuries and other workplace injuries.
The line speed and associated health issues are just one of the problems for low-wage workers in this industry. The report also discusses other health issues like not being allowed to take bathroom breaks, poverty level wages, rampant wage theft, discrimination and harassment. Oxfam calls on Pilgrim’s, Perdue, Sanderson Farms and Tyson Foods – the top four poultry companies representing 60% of the market – to take affirmative steps to change the industry.
North Carolina is #3 in poultry production and it is our state’s top agricultural commodity. North Carolina poultry producers can afford to treat their employees better. But while we wait on the industry to make the much needed changes, NC OSHA should quickly adopt a “Special Emphasis Program” to increase the number of inspections of poultry plants. Many of our neighboring states have recently adopted such a program under the supervision of federal OSHA and North Carolina has been strongly encouraged to do the same.