A report just published by Oxfam outlines how staff at many of the largest chicken processing plants in the US are routinely denied toilet breaks, to the extent that some have resorted to wearing nappies to work. “No relief; Denial of bathroom breaks in the poultry industry,” is the result of three years of interviews conducted with dozens of employees from some of the largest poultry companies in the US, as well as “worker advocates, attorneys, medical experts, analysts and others.”
Problems with toilet breaks stem from the interlocking nature of chicken processing lines, in which every person's role is crucial. If anyone drops out of the line, production stops. The report states: “Supervisors deny requests to use the bathroom because they are under pressure to maintain the speed of the processing line, and to keep up production. Once a poultry plant roars to a start at the beginning of the day, it doesn’t stop until all the chickens are processed. Workers are reduced to pieces of the machine, little more than the body parts that hang, cut, trim, and load—rapidly and relentlessly.” The companies are supposed to solve this problem by employing so-called 'floaters' who can step into various positions to keep the flow of production going.
In some unionised plants there are sufficient floaters but workers in other plants reported being left waiting an hour or more after requesting a toilet break. The report carries testimony of the pressures attached to being in the line, where supervisors mocked or questioned bathroom requests, even from pregnant and menstruating women. “Hanson, a worker at a Tyson plant in Arkansas, had the uncomfortable experience of seeing his own mother urinate on herself at work; she now wears diapers to work to avoid it happening again. Fern, a Tyson worker in Arkansas, said she had to wait so long that she had to urinate at her work station; she believes others had the same experience, but most are too humiliated to share the experience.”
The findings underline a wider array of difficulties faced by workers in America's poultry industry, in which the top four companies control 60% of the market. Last year, Oxfam published “Lives on the line, The human cost of cheap chicken,” which outlined broader problems with low wages, work-related injuries and what was termed “a climate of fear in the workplace.” The investigators talked to Marta, an employee of Pilgrim Chicken in Texas who said: “We’re human beings who feel, and hurt, and we work the best we can. But it’s not enough for them. They demand more and more... They demand more than you can do.”
Investigators shared their findings with the companies but only two responded, Tyson and Perdue. Tyson said of the findings: “We care about our Team Members, so we find these claims troubling. However, since Oxfam America has declined to share the real names and locations of those making the allegations, it’s difficult for us to address them or gauge their validity.” Perdue said: “The health and welfare of our associates is paramount and we take these types of allegations very seriously. The anecdotes reported are not consistent with Perdue’s policies and practices. Unfortunately, we do not have enough information to investigate the validity of these complaints.” Both went on to list their employee complaints procedures, reiterating that any employee should feel free to avail of toilet breaks at work without recrimination.