Immigration

Wage Theft, Sexual Assault, And No Sick Leave: The Horrible Conditions Facing Poultry Workers

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Approximately 300,000 poultry workers make it possible for Americans to consume 1.3 billion chicken wings for big events like the Super Bowl and Thanksgiving. But many of those workers include people of color and immigrants who are often subject to wage discrepancies, discrimination, and poor working conditions, as a recent Northwest Arkansas Workers Justice Center (NWAWJC) report found.

Arkansas is the second largest U.S. state in broiler production. The demographics for Arkansas poultry workers include 33 percent Latinos, 17 percent African American, and six percent Asian, “with a large population of workers from the Marshall Islands,” the report stated. But foreign-born and non-white workers specifically report higher rates of direct discrimination on the job and often receive lower pay and fewer opportunities to advance into better jobs.

Poultry workers earned an average of $13.84 — above the minimum wage — but foreign-born workers were more likely to receive that pay through a payroll card system or through a combination of cash and check, rather than through the direct deposit that U.S.-born workers generally received. One out of five foreign-born workers were paid with a payroll card, compared to one out of ten U.S.-born workers. Since payroll cards include fees for withdrawal, they result in reduced overall take-home pay.

What’s more, the report found that almost 38 percent of all workers surveyed report that they’ve experienced pay “disappearing” on a payroll card. Almost two-thirds of workers experienced some form of illegal wage theft, such as deductions from worker’s pay for supplies, not receiving mandated overtime pay, or not being paid for all hours worked.

Overall, they also dealt with injuries at a higher rate than the average worker — two-thirds of cutters and half of all deboners and hangers reported being injured on the job. And almost 91 percent of workers surveyed indicated that they did not earn sick leave, with 62 percent reporting that they had to work while sick. Foreign-born workers were also five times more likely to receive no sick leave at all.

“It’s one of the most striking and problematic findings of this report that only nine percent of people have earned sick leave and that there’s not really an option of staying home and taking a pay cut,” Amber Moulton, a Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) researcher who jhelped to write the report, told ThinkProgress. “You’re compelled to come to work and that applies to foreign-born workers and U.S. citizens. It’s absolutely stark. People are just not granted benefits that uphold health and dignity.”

More than half of workers also said that they experienced discrimination and that when they reported the problems, they were subjected to harsher and more dangerous working conditions.

Jazmin Acosta, a Latino poultry worker, spoke out against the sexual harassment that she faced on the job at a recent rally to improve conditions in the poultry industry for workers. She said that she filed a claim about a coworker who flashed her and sexually harrassed her, but was told by a female manager that she was lying.

“Instead of seeing a solution, Manager called me and told me that she wanted to talk to me,” Acosta said, according to a transcript provided to ThinkProgress by the NWA Workers’ Justice Center. “At the office, she told me I was a problem in the company. She said that many supervisors had received a lot of claims about me. I asked which supervisors, I only complaint [sic] to one supervisor, but they [sic] way she would react towards me, yelling at me, making me feel inferior and intimidated, I didn’t want to file claims with her anymore.”

Acosta was later transferred to a morning shift, even though she had to take care of her child. Though management didn’t do anything to stop the sexual harassment against her, Acosta quit.

Females experience more than sexual harassment at poultry plants. They are also denied bathroom breaks, a problem that could pose more problems for pregnant women, Moulton said.

“In a lot of cases, people are not as comfortable coming forward and saying not only that they were discriminated against, but also particularly when it comes to issues like not being granted bathroom breaks and having to urinate on themselves,” Moulton explained. “It’s an embarrassing thing to say and people don’t want to be public about that. It’s a baseline problem that we see in the poultry industry that needs to be fixed immediately. it’s one of the main demands that the worker’s justice center wants to see addressed right away — it is equitable access to bathroom breaks.”

The conditions that Acosta and other workers face in the poultry industry are not new. Last year, Oxfam released a report that found the official numbers for injuries are likely an undercount. In that report, workers were found to have ten times the rate of repetitive strain from microtasks than the rest of the workforce, seven times the rate of carpal tunnel syndrome, and five times the rate of musculoskeletal disorders generally.

“The poultry industry is one that is known for using a marginalized workforce and essentially people are drawn into these jobs specifically to do that task,” Moulton said. “Historically it’s been immigrant workers that are drawn into these jobs.”

“It’s not an issue of simple disagreement over a particular wage,” she added. “This is about dignity and justice for the workers. It’ll take quite systemic change for these things to be in line for full rights and dignity for workers.”