Here’s another reminder that there’s a real cost to cheap meat. According to a new report released by Oxfam, workers in poultry factories — in addition to being underpaid and overworked in the country’s most dangerous work environment — routinely face the indignity of being denied bathroom breaks. Out of hundreds of interviews conducted by the organization, only a handful of workers reported the basic right being respected. Those individuals primarily work in unionized plants, while only a third of poultry workers are protected by unions, leaving most susceptible to this kind of abuse.
Most poultry workers, the report says, are mocked, taunted, and ignored by supervisors, forced to wait inordinate amounts of time to use the bathroom even if they’re pregnant, and threatened with punishments or discipline for taking too long and reporting incidents. Two separate workers at Tyson plants describe supervisors telling them to eat and drink less so they don’t have to go to the bathroom as often, while a lawsuit was brought against Mississippi’s Koch Foods for charging workers, among other things, for using the bathroom. Other workers describe incidents of colleagues peeing or defecating on the line or on the way to the bathroom after a long wait. As a result, workers report that they and their co-workers wear diapers. Otherwise, they’ll not only suffer the embarrassment of an incident but have to wear wet clothing in environments chilled to 40 degrees.
The justification for denying these breaks is tied into the incredibly fast pace of industrial chicken factories, which typically process 180,000 birds a day. Besides breaking workplace-safety laws, these practices, Oxfam suggests, could possibly violate anti-discrimination laws because pregnant women and those with disabilities are particularly vulnerable. The picture painted by Oxfam is disturbing if not entirely unexpected, given what’s already known about the conditions endured by these workers. Certainly it’s a reminder that the routine abuse of vulnerable workers — undocumented immigrants, low-income and undereducated citizens — remains an issue in the American food industry, and not just a distant problem in places like Thailand. At the very least, it should make people think twice about buying that bargain-rate woody chicken breast.