March 13, 2013 Liz Borkowski, MPH 1Comment

Alabama’s poultry industry produces more than one billion broiler chickens each year and accounts for 10% of the state’s economy. According to the new report Unsafe at These Speeds, this production comes at a steep price for the low-paid, hourly workers working in poultry plants.

The Southern Poverty Law Center and Alabama Appleseed interviewed 302 poultry workers from Alabama’s poultry industry and heard about grueling work that has left nearly three-fourths of them reporting significant work-related injuries or illnesses. A fast-moving processing line has small teams of workers handling more than 100 birds each minute, and debilitating musculoskeletal pain is a common problem. The report explains how dangerous conditions can persist:

But if the line seems to move at a pace designed for machines rather than people, it should come as no surprise. Plant workers, many whom are immigrants, are often treated as disposable resources by their employers. Threats of deportation and firing are frequently used to keep them silent.

But workers speaking freely outside of work describe what one called a climate of fear within these plants. It’s a world where employees are fired for work-related injuries or even for seeking medical treatment from someone other than the company nurse or doctor. In this report, they describe being discouraged from reporting work-related injuries, enduring constant pain and even choosing to urinate on themselves rather than invite the wrath of a supervisor by leaving the processing line for a restroom break.

Grueling, painful jobs with supervisors who discourage sufficient bathroom breaks generally don’t appeal to workers who have other options. After Alabama passed its extreme anti-immigration bill, HB 56, many immigrants left the state; even many with legal documents felt harassed and unwelcome. Employers who’d previously relied on immigrants have had a hard time filling jobs in poultry plants and tomato fields. But rather than improving the wages and working conditions to make these jobs more appealing, poultry plants seem to have gotten even worse. The report explains:

Many Latinos – regardless of their immigration status – apparently did choose to flee the state rather than face the racial profiling and harassment promoted by HB 56.

The lines of Alabamians wanting their jobs, however, failed to appear.

… Poultry workers say HB 56 has left processing plants understaffed as some companies choose to leave many positions unfilled. They say companies have used the new law to intimidate the remaining undocumented employees into working under even more dangerous conditions.

Francisco,* a 50-year-old Latino poultry worker in North Alabama, has seen a dramatic change since the law took effect. He said his employer has hired very few workers to replace those who fled.

Instead, HB 56 has forced each worker to process more chickens than before. The plant has even increased its line speed in the deboning area, despite the number of workers there dropping from about 42 workers per line to about 32. The few new hires are thrown into their jobs without training – a decision that makes their dangerous jobs even riskier, he said.

Francisco believes the company knows that many of its workers are undocumented and is exploiting their fear of HB 56 for profit. The company has threatened mass firings if workers cannot keep up with the faster pace, he said.

Conditions for poultry workers in Alabama and the rest of the country could get even worse if the US Department of Agriculture finalizes a proposed rule that would allow poultry plants to increase poultry-plant line speeds to 175 birds per minute (watch this animation to see how fast that is). SPLC and Alabama Appleseed conclude their report with recommendations, and the first one on the list is that USDA stop this proposed increase of maximum line speeds. They also recommend that OSHA “affirmatively regulate line speeds and the number of birds per minute each worker may be required to process” and ” issue comprehensive ergonomics regulations to reduce musculoskeletal disorders arising from repetitive motion in the poultry industry.”  Read Unsafe at These Speeds for more on the problem and solutions.

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