A new report says that poultry workers in the U.S. are often denied bathroom breaks, and as a result, they end up defecating and urinating on themselves while on the job.
Oxfam America, an activist group, and its partner organizations traveled around the country to interview current and ex-poultry workers, advocates for poultry employees, lawyers, medical experts, analysts and others.
The new report, based on research from 2013 to 2016, states:
Routinely, poultry workers say, they are denied breaks to use the bathroom. Supervisors mock their needs and ignore their requests; they threaten punishment or firing.
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Workers wait inordinately long times (an hour or more), then race to accomplish the task within a certain timeframe (e.g., ten minutes) or risk discipline.
Workers struggle to cope with this denial of a basic human need. They urinate and defecate while standing on the line; they wear diapers to work; they restrict intake of liquids and fluids to dangerous degrees; they endure pain and discomfort while they worry about their health and job security.
Denying workers bathroom breaks violates U.S. labor law and may violate anti-discrimination laws, according to the report.
The Southern Poverty Law Center noted in a 2013 report on Alabama poultry workers:
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Of the 266 workers answering questions about bathroom breaks, nearly eight in 10 (79 percent) said they are not allowed to take breaks when needed. ... Some workers said they dealt with the issue of bathroom breaks by not consuming water before and during shifts – a serious health risk. Others, fearful of losing their jobs, said they had no choice but to relieve themselves as they worked the processing line.
Oxfam America's study also notes that Tyson Foods, Pilgrim’s, Perdue and Sanderson Farms control almost 60 percent of the poultry industry and employ about 100,000 workers in poultry processing.
According to the Oxfam America, poultry manufacturing plants deny or severely limit bathroom breaks so that the workers can kill chickens quickly and keep up production.
The chicken plants that are the exception to the bathroom issues are reportedly ones with union-employed workers.
In response to the report, the National Chicken Council and the U.S. Poultry & Egg Association said in a statement:
The health, safety and respect of our employees is very important, and we value their contributions in helping to produce our food.
We’re troubled by these claims but also question this group’s efforts to paint the whole industry with a broad brush based on a handful of anonymous claims. We believe such instances are extremely rare and that U.S. poultry companies work hard to prevent them.
Although individual practices vary by company, restroom breaks are planned for any production line. Most facilities also employ extra people to cover for production workers who request a bathroom break. In addition, medical-related situations are taken into account and accommodations are made.
Coordinating restroom breaks in the workplace is certainly not unique to the chicken industry. Whether it’s a cashier, bus driver, bartender, bank teller or just about any manufacturing job, there are practices in place related to restroom breaks that are clearly outlined to the employee.
Tyson Foods told Oxfam America:
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.
We can tell you we’re committed to treating each other with respect and this includes giving workers time off the production line when they need it. Restroom breaks are not restricted to scheduled work breaks and can be taken at any time.
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 said in a statement to Oxfam America:
The health and welfare of our associates is paramount and we take these types of allegations very seriously. The anecdotes reported are not consistent with Perdue’s policies and practices. Unfortunately, we do not have enough information to investigate the validity of these complaints.
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. As part of our people-first philosophy, associates have the right to be heard by all levels of management to resolve a conflict or misunderstanding through the Open Door Policy. This allows them to speak to any level of management, not just their immediate supervisor.
In addition to Peer Review and Management review processes, we offer an anonymous toll-free hotline to report illegal or unethical activity in the workplace. Calls made to this number will be kept confidential, and associates don’t have to give their name if they don’t want to.