From poultry worker to organizer: Bacilio Castro’s story
The booming poultry industry in America is built on the backs of workers on the processing line; they earn low wages of diminishing value, suffer high rates of injury and illness, and have little voice or dignity in their labor. The following story is part of a series by Oxfam to expose the reality of life on the line, and to show you how you can help.
Bacilio Castro today works with the Western North Carolina Workers’ Center, helping to inform poultry workers about their rights.
I’m originally from Guatemala, a town called Santa Cruz del Quiché, where most of the people are indigenous. In the 1980s and ‘90s, Guatemala suffered a civil war, and unfortunately many in my family were victims of the slaughter. My mother and three of my uncles were killed.
It was tough to get by after that. After struggling for a few years, I decided to follow an older brother who’d made the trip to North Carolina.
I was hoping to study in the US, but when I arrived, I got the news that another brother had been imprisoned in Guatemala. I knew I would have to go to work to save enough money to get him out of jail.
That’s when I started working in the chicken processing plant. I said, the first check, I’m going to send to my father, the second check I’ll be saving to get my brother out of jail.
I started working and working, thinking I don’t care what happens to me. But I started feeling how exhausted I was every time I got home. I felt that my hand could no longer move; I felt the inside of my hand and it was completely swollen. I told the supervisor that I didn’t think I would be good working with the wings, could he move me to another situation?
The supervisor said no, it’s not possible. And then I felt my hand getting worse. But the supervisor just said the pain will soon be gone, that it was normal, and not to worry, in a month it will be gone. But the hand felt worse, and my shoulder and back started to hurt.
In the morning, the line starts slowly. I had to clip wings off 42 chickens per minute. By noon, they start to increase the speed to 48 or 49 chickens per minute. After a while, the body feels unable to continue.
When the line stops for any reason, they try to catch up for the lost production time by increasing the speed of the line. One morning, the machine had a malfunction and the line was not working. After an hour, the mechanics came in, the problem was fixed, and the line suddenly began operating.
So the supervisors began to increase the line speed. They do it gradually so the workers don’t notice. I was new, and couldn’t keep up; I missed several chickens. The supervisor told me that if I kept missing the chickens, I’d be taken to the office. I didn’t want to lose my job, so I started to cut the wings, more quickly.
Suddenly the knife went through my hand, I don’t know how many inches in. Because the blood was so warm, it didn’t initially hurt that much, but fifteen minutes later the pain set in. I couldn’t stand it, I couldn’t move my hand. I told my supervisor, but he told me to wait, because there was no one to take over for me.
I told him I can’t do it anymore, and let the chickens go by. The supervisor told me to come with him to the office–that I needed to sign a paper. I was enraged and pulled the glove off my hand–and he saw my bloody hand. He wasn’t pleased that I had dripped blood onto the line, and the chicken would have to be discarded.
It took days, then weeks until the hand started to get better and finally healed, and I was able to return to work. It’s just not possible to keep up with the increase of speed on the line.
I would ask my co-workers, when you got here did you get any training? When we started, they sometimes showed us a 20- minute video, but in English, and not everyone would understand. We didn’t really have any training.
The company simply cares and worries only about production. They want the workers to do what they tell them to do. They are unaware of the health of their employees.
Another day at work, we saw this young boy running, screaming. His finger got into the cutter and got cut off. The women started crying, because they were feeling his pain. The poor kid was taken to a hospital.
To our surprise, he returned to work three days later with a bandage on his hand. He came back, and they had him moving boxes around.
I was telling myself, it’s not fair that they make him work after he has been injured at work. But, so many immigrants are not here legally – and they just have no choice. They’re stuck where they can get a job.
A few days later, I saw a lady slip and fall on a slippery floor—she broke part of her hip. They took her to the hospital and she was out of work for several weeks. When she came back, not fully recovered, she was put to work immediately. It is a system of abuses.
Another time, I was working next to very pregnant lady, who needed to use the restroom. She asked the supervisor, and he said yes, but to wait a few minutes. An hour went by, then two hours, and the lady asked the supervisor again. He said there was no one available to take over for her, and to wait a little longer.
Finally, she couldn’t hold it any longer, and let it go. She started to cry, and the supervisor came over and started to scream at her: “You know that in this company we work with food products, what do you think you are doing?”
At that moment, I felt that those strong words and screams could be directed to my mother, or sister, at anyone in my community. I was outraged. I told the supervisor that what he was doing was wrong. Other people saw it and agreed, and shouted, “Stop the line.” That’s when we did a work stoppage.
Rights and dignity of workers
That episode shocked me completely; I said, What’s going on here? I started looking for help, and went to a Catholic Church, where they told me there was a workers’ center. I was invited to attend a training–where I learned about the rights and dignity of all workers.
Today, I’m happy to say I’m a staff member of the Worker’s Center. The mission and vision of the center is to empower workers, because they have power when they are united. To fight for the rights of workers and to not be afraid of their immigration status. Because in this country, all workers have rights.
I ask you from the bottom of my heart: before you start eating that bowl of delicious chicken, be conscious about our plight. We need to look through the walls to see what really happens during the processing of chicken; there are so many tears.
Tell the companies to please respect the rights of their workers. We must be united in order to ask all these companies to respect the right of workers. So all workers can have a sense of dignity at work.
Tell the poultry companies that you care about how your food is processed.
Speak out to the top-four chicken companies – Tyson, Pigrim’s, Perdue, and Sanderson Farms – and tell them their workers deserve to be treated with respect and dignity. Sign the petition.
And visit the immersive experience website to learn more about the reality of life on the line.