But for workers in poultry plants, there’s another, more immediate concern: going to the bathroom.
“When you talk to poultry workers, the one thing they come back to constantly is, ‘We have to soil ourselves, we’re wearing diapers, they don’t let us go to the bathroom,’ ” said Deborah Berkowitz, senior fellow at the National Employment Law Project and consultant on a new Oxfam report about the problem.
“It’s very common throughout the industry,” she said. “You’ll hear it from Delaware to Minnesota, from Arkansas to Texas.”
Speeding through thousands of chickens, poultry workers are under so much pressure to keep up production that they routinely are denied bathroom breaks, according to the Oxfam report. Supervisors mock or ignore requests, threatening punishment for workers who ask to leave the line, it states.
The National Chicken Council and U.S. Poultry & Egg Association responded by saying that “restroom breaks are planned for any production line.”
“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,” the industry associations said in a statement. “We believe such instances are extremely rare and that U.S. poultry companies work hard to prevent them.”
Berkowitz, who was a senior official at the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration until last fall, said the bathroom break problem goes back decades and is particular to the poultry industry.
In the 1990s, poultry workers already had a reputation for wearing diapers, said Berkowitz, who then was health and safety director for the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. She says her complaint to OSHA at the time led the agency to issue a 1998 guidance that employers were required “to make toilet facilities available so that employees can use them when they need to do so.”
Most employers do, Berkowitz said. But poultry companies continue to violate the law, she said. While Berkowitz worked for OSHA, the agency cited a plant that prided itself on antibiotic-free, vegetarian-fed chickens.
“I think consumers would be shocked to learn that not only is their chicken antibiotic free or free range, but the people who process their chicken are compelled to wear diapers,” she said. “In 2016, that this is an issue is unbelievable.”