Poultry workers speak out about denial of bathroom breaks
Will Fenton is an advocacy advisor for Oxfam America.
I met Alejandra at a meeting of poultry workers on May 10, the night before we were rallying outside Tyson headquarters to deliver over 150,000 petition signatures. Dozens of workers came to tell us their stories about life inside the plants.
“Es inhumano,” Alejandra said, referring to the restriction of bathroom breaks in her poultry plant: “It’s inhumane.”
She’s been working in a Tyson plant for 14 years, and takes pride in her work. She described life in the plant, standing shoulder to shoulder with other workers on the processing line, dressed in protective gear, and the ever-increasing pressure to cut more and more chicken. She said she felt like a machine (something I’d hear again and again).
A worker from another plant said workers were given only five minutes for bathroom breaks. Five minutes to travel to the restroom, remove protective gear, use the bathroom, and return. If they go over the time, they get a warning.
Another woman told us about a worker who urinated on himself because he couldn’t hold it until the allotted bathroom break; when the company fired him, they indicated he’d violated “sanitation” standards, and entered that on his work record.
Others talked about workers wearing adult diapers, and supervisors telling workers to drink less water.
It was my first trip to Arkansas–and to a major poultry-producing town. As Oxfam staff based in New York City, I spend my days lobbying on behalf of poor and marginalized communities abroad. I was excited to hear directly from poultry workers. Since I’d read Oxfam’s report, Lives on the Line, I knew they earn low and diminishing wages, suffer high rates of injury and illness, and work in a climate of fear.
But on this night, the workers told us loud and clear about their anger and frustration over the denial of this most basic right to use the bathroom.
We’d traveled a long road to get to the Northwest Arkansas Workers’ Justice Center (NWAWJC), an Oxfam partner. Arkansas is home to some 28,000 poultry workers, and NWAWJC is on the frontlines of fighting for their rights. In a small conference room off the side the road, roughly 30 current and former poultry workers shared their stories.
The following day, we’d be releasing a report called No Relief, detailing how workers are routinely denied adequate bathroom breaks. We’d come to stand with workers on Tyson’s home turf to deliver over 150,000 petition signatures of consumers demanding the leading poultry companies treat their workers better.
Clint Schnekloth, a pastor at Shepherd Lutheran Church in Fayetteville, joined us at the meeting. Schnekloth’s congregation includes many Tyson employees, including executives; some had told him they’d never heard of workers being denied bathroom breaks. Now he wanted to hear from the workers.
He read the section of the report that quotes Tyson saying that restroom breaks “can be taken at any time.” Once this had been translated, the room erupted in a mix of jeers and laughs. “That’s a lie,” one woman shouted in Spanish. Others chuckled and shook their heads. Clearly these workers, like the dozens interviewed for our report, felt that this policy was in print only, and that real conditions in the plant were quite different.
The next morning, we assembled under the hot sun outside Tyson’s massive headquarters. We’d assembled our petitions on Styrofoam trays and wrapped them in plastic—our outrage packaged as chicken. We unfurled banners, and workers carried homemade signs. More than 40 of us chanted, and waved at cars whizzing by. Before long, four camera crews and a print journalist arrived. As the cameras rolled, speakers demanded Tyson take action to remedy the awful conditions.
We lined up and marched to the building, where three Tyson employees met us along the driveway. They asked us to load our petitions onto the back of a bright red pickup truck. I hope Tyson unwrapped our packages and appreciated all the names of people who care so much.
They repeated the line about no restrictions on bathroom breaks, and handed us the policy that Schnekloth had read the night before. Schnekloth asked them why a company that is projecting record profits this year feels the need to deny its workers adequate bathroom breaks. They declined to answer.
With that, our action was over and we headed for the airport. As we waited to board, news coverage of our action and our report began to roll in. By the time we landed, a storm of media coverage had hit (thanks to the incredible work of Oxfam’s media team).
The Washington Post had a headline “I Had to Wear Diapers…”, which received thousands of comments. Before long the Associated Press picked up the story, and from there it was everywhere – The Guardian, Los Angeles Times, and many other outlets. Even “Good Morning America,” with some 5 million daily viewers, aired a segment. On the social media side, over 5,000 people on Facebook shared our infographic which targets Tyson, and twitter was awash with users using the hashtag #givethemabreak.
Clearly, we’d touched a nerve. I read through some of the comments: People seemed genuinely shocked and disgusted at the denial of adequate bathroom breaks.
There’s something fundamental and relatable about this basic need. Everyone has to go to the bathroom. I thought back to Alejandra and her quiet dignity. “It’s inhumane” she’d said. The rest of country seemed to agree.
Now we await the industry’s actions.