The Butterball turkey plant in Huntsville, Arkansas ramps up production beginning in October to meet the demand for fresh (not frozen) Thanksgiving turkeys. The working conditions are already dismal. The bad situation is magnified during this peak season as workers on the production line try to keep up with turkey carcasses moving passed at 51 per minute.
Just in time for this week’s holiday, Gabriel Thompson reports on the experiences of Butterball workers in an article appearing today in Slate. One worker, a former prison guard from Puerto Rico named Lisandro Vega spoke to Thompson. Vega described the relentless line speed in which he uses a knife to trim the raw turkeys. The worker explained his efforts to deal with his hands cramping up because of the repetitive, hand-tool intensive work:
“He began submerging them in a container of hot bleached water, perched nearby to disinfect dropped knives. During brief moments between birds, he’d stretch out his fingers, which tended to harden, clawlike, around his knife.”
Vega, like other workers, also suffers back pain from moving containers of turkeys and from slips and falls on the icy floors.
The poultry industry is always quick to make assertions about its workplace safety record. Earlier this month the industry announced:
“Perhaps more than any other industry, the poultry industry has focused its energies on the prevention of workplace injuries and illnesses, especially musculoskeletal disorders like carpal tunnel syndrome…”
The industry touts that its injury rate is at an all-time low and lower than the rate in other food manufacturing sectors. But Lisandro Vega tells a different story. As he explained to Thompson:
“One day, while signing in at the nurse’s station, he noticed a posting on the wall. It listed an impressive number of hours that workers had gone without suffering injuries causing them to miss shifts. According to Butterball, the plant was one of the safest worksites in the country; in 2013, the company announced that Huntsville employees had worked 8 million hours without what is called a lost-time injury. That’s a remarkable figure—the equivalent of a single person working full-time for 3,835 consecutive years.”
“Vega looked around the nurse’s station. He saw three people whose swollen hands were being iced. Another man had his shoulder wrapped in ice. On the walk over from the debone line, sharp pains had shot through Vega’s back with each step. If none of us are hurt, he asked himself, then what are we all doing in the nurse’s station?”
Thompson’s piece “Dark Meat” is set in northwest Arkansas. The Butterball plant is located in Huntsville and nearby Springdale is the headquarters of Tyson Foods and a poultry plant owned by Cargill.
“Turkey is big business in Arkansas. …On the short drive from my Springfield motel to the Cargill plant, I pass three chicken plants, two hatcheries, and a dead turkey on the side of the road.”
His reporting for Slate is part of the magazine’s year-long series The Grind. They’ve been investigating the working conditions of those who support some of the U.S.’s annual traditions.
Are you eating turkey on Thanksgiving? Do you know anything about the working conditions for those who processed the bird you will eat?