Photo courtesy of John D. Simmons / The Charlotte Observer
On April 26, Tyson Foods pledged to improve working conditions for its poultry workers. This announcement comes on the heels of active work done by a coalition of organizations including Oxfam America. The coalition released Lives on the Line in 2015 and built consumer support through campaigning and media coverage to make the poultry industry accountable for the health, safety, and liberty of its workers.
The report focused on the big four of the United States’ poultry industry: Tyson Foods, Pilgrim’s, Perdue, and Sanderson Farms. These four dominate 60 percent of the domestic poultry market in the United States, with Tyson contributing 23 percent—the largest—to the chicken market. Despite the technological advancements made in the poultry industry, it heavily relies on manpower on the line production “from hanging the chickens to cutting wings and legs to pulling breasts and trimming skin,” the report explained.
The report presented cases of workers at Tyson who suffered conditions such as low wages and the inability to take between work—either for using bathrooms or for sharpening their tools. The report indicates that this has led to numerous health conditions and injuries for the workers, such as prostate problems, carpel tunnel syndrome, asthma, and other respiratory ailments.
Common themes in the case studies were lack of healthcare facilities on site; lack of appropriate and adequate compensations for injuries and health conditions; fear of losing jobs for speaking out about these harsh conditions; and exploitation of vulnerable population. These conditions were prevalent in spite of the existence of “Bill of Rights” for the workers at Tyson.
With its new Commitment for Continuous Improvement in the Workplace, Tyson Foods will publicly report annual progress on injuries and illnesses and retention rates. The company website also states a commitment to “publicly sharing the results of third-party social compliance audits through its corporate website at the end of the fiscal 2017.”
The company is committed to providing regularly scheduled breaks for its workers, keeping the focus on the worker and food safety issues and re-calibrating line speeds accordingly, and increasing wages depending on the roles. Through trainings, Tyson Foods is hoping to disseminate information on Bill of Rights for workers, Code of Conduct, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) rules and regulations, and various other platforms that workers could use to raise concerns. They are also set to roll out new initiatives on compensations, focusing improvements in long-term and short-term disability coverage and assistance for education and adoption.
Oxfam and other workers organization partners have welcomed Tyson’s efforts to creating a safer and more sustainable workplace environment. Executive Director of Northwest Arkansas Workers’ Justice Center (NWAWJC), Magaly Licolli, said in an interview with Oxfam, “I’m hopeful about the new commitments from Tyson, and we really expect they’re honest about it, the workers are really hoping for better conditions, and more breaks. I think the fact that the company has new leadership is an opening to develop a relationship with them to commit to changes.”
Licolli continues, “I do think the company wants to change—but we’re also very cautious. The workers know it’s not the end, it’s just the beginning of a long fight. We’re going to keep monitoring what’s going on in the plants, and see how they implement the changes.”