American poultry workers employed by some of the largest producers in the country are regularly denied bathroom breaks, forced to work in unsafe conditions, and even resort to wearing diapers during their shifts, according to a new report from Oxfam America.
Workers from some of the largest poultry processors in the United States, including Tyson Foods Inc., Perdue Farms Inc., Sanderson Farms Inc., and Pilgrim’s Pride Corp. spoke to Oxfam on the condition of anonymity and complained of unreasonable working conditions.
Despite official policies in place at companies like Tyson and Perdue, the report that Oxfam issued Wednesday shows that workers are often ignored or mocked by supervisors, and that requests for bathroom breaks are often met with threats of punishment or firing.
When workers at these companies are allowed to leave the production line to use the bathroom, they are typically allotted far too little time. One worker reported that bathroom breaks are just 10 minutes long, and returning even one minute late results in a disciplinary point. Other workers reported even shorter breaks that don’t take into account the amount of time that it takes a worker to walk to a bathroom, let alone remove their protective gear and then put it back on before returning to the line.
In other situations, workers may only be allowed to use the bathroom on scheduled breaks, when the entire line is shut down. This leads to a situation where more than 100 workers need to use the bathroom at the same time, resulting in very long lines and possibly preventing some workers from actually using the bathroom during that break.
According to the Oxfam report, workers use a number of coping strategies to get through the day. Some workers intentionally dehydrate themselves, drinking very little fluid before or during their shifts, in an attempt to avoid the need to use the bathroom. This behavior is even encouraged by supervisors, according to some of the workers who spoke to Oxfam.
“We talk about this all the time,” one poultry worker told Oxfam. “We joke and say that we need to eat less and drink less because our line lead tells us to—if we do, we won’t have to use the bathroom all the time.”
Reducing or eliminating fluid intake, especially when doing physically demanding work, can result in severe health problems, including issues with the kidneys, bladder, and prostate. Other workers who attempt to hold it in during their shifts also face potential kidney damage and other issues.
“There’s a lot of people peeing on themselves because they would not let them use the bathrooms.”
Another coping mechanism that some poultry workers use is to actually wear diapers while working on the line.
One employee of a Simmons plant in Arkansas told Oxfam that she was repeatedly told to eat and drink less by her supervisor and eventually resorted to wearing a sanitary napkin to deal with urination while working on the line. When that proved insufficient, she was forced to wear diapers.
“I had to wear Pampers. I and many, many others had to wear Pampers,” the Simmons employee told Oxfam, adding that she felt as if she had, “no worth, no right to ask questions or to speak up.”
Oxfam America contacted each of the companies that they received complaints about, but only Tyson and Perdue responded. Both of these companies told Oxfam that they do allow bathroom breaks, contradicting the employee complaints.
“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,” Tyson wrote. “Our production supervisors are instructed to allow Team Members to leave the production line if they need to use the restroom. Not permitting them to do so is simply not tolerated.”
Perdue also shifted the blame to Oxfam and the anonymous complainants, suggesting that the company cannot take action without knowing the identities of the employees that say they aren’t receving bathroom breaks.
“Unfortunately, we do not have enough information to investigate the validity of these complaints,” Perdue wrote. “After an internal review, it does not appear that these associates have taken advantage of Perdue’s Open Door Policy or other available options to voice their concerns.”
The Oxfam report concludes with a number of suggestions as to how working conditions in American poultry plants could be improved. Due to the obvious disconnect between stated company policy and the reality on the line, one suggestion is to allow third-party organizations to verify and audit bathroom policies. The report also suggests that more workers may be needed as floaters to take over and keep the line moving during individual bathroom breaks and recommends that poultry producers maintain a neutral stance on unionization.
Do you believe the poultry workers who claim they have to wear diapers because their supervisors don’t allow them to take bathroom breaks, or do you think the poultry companies are right and that Oxfam should release the names of the employees so that each situation can be investigated?
[Photo by J.Scott Applewhite/AP Images]