First Person

Now I can say something about what it’s like inside a poultry plant

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For many years, the work force at poultry plants in Mississippi was largely composed of African American women. Claudette, shown, worked at a poultry plant in North Carolina, cutting and pulling thousands of turkey gizzards each day, until she was seriously injured. When she went on her own to a doctor, he diagnosed her with severe carpal tunnel syndrome and later performed surgery. She eventually settled a workers’ compensation case with the company. “I just wanted justice,” she says. “I just wanted someone to take care of my hand.” The story is the same for thousands of workers, who perform the same motions up to 100,000 times per day, and suffer carpal tunnel syndrome at seven times the national average. Photo by John D. Simmons / The Charlotte Observer

“They treat people like they are machines, not humans.”

Barbara Brown worked at poultry plant for more than eight years. She now lives in Mississippi, where she cares for her mother.

I consider myself truly blessed and thank God that I have the use of my hands and limbs, and never had to have surgery after eight years of working for Sanderson Farms, Inc. in Hazlehurst, Miss. Many workers I know, mostly African American women working on the lines, have injuries so bad they’ve had surgeries on one or both of their hands, mainly from carpal tunnel syndrome. Working there, your hands and arms just deteriorate, your fingers lock up on you — sometimes to the point you can’t use them at all, even after you’ve left the plant.

In the poultry plants, they treat people like they are machines, not humans. Now that I am no longer working there, I can say something. A lot of people are afraid to speak up because they are afraid they will lose their jobs. And they can’t afford to, so they keep quiet and continue to work.

I worked different jobs at the plant, which included: cutting shoulders, loading chickens onto cones, pulling skin, picking meat up off the floor and cutting tenders. Sometimes I was made to cut the left shoulder of the chicken with my left hand, even though I am right-handed. So I would cut myself a lot trying to maneuver around the bone. I would just cover the cut and keep working. I would wear metal gloves to try to protect my hands from being cut. One time when I was cut really bad, I went to the nurse and she just bandaged me up and sent me right back to the line. When I was there, when chicken would fall on the floor, I would try to make sure it was washed before placing it back on the line.

Many times when workers are injured, mainly African-American women, they are either fired or forced to quit. These workers work so hard to support their families and are just tossed out with no source of income or options.

They don’t allow people to go to the restroom when they need to; women have many reasons to have bathroom breaks, without having to explain those reasons to the supervisors. If there is no one available to take your place to release you to go to the bathroom, you just have to stay on the line and wait for a break.

Workers don’t get sick time or personal days, and it’s a struggle to take care of their families. They keep going to work every day, whether they’re sick or their families are sick. One time the school was calling the plant to reach me, because my child was sick, but no one in human resources told me; I didn’t find out until I got home and the school had left a message on my answering machine. It was very frustrating.

My mother worked for the poultry industry for 18 years and NEVER missed a day. Her hands started hurting her badly and she went to the doctor and was diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome in both her hands. She’s had surgery on both hands. The doctor sent a restrictions letter to the plant to keep her from being placed back on the line. She was made to clean the break room area, picking up trash and wiping down tables. After a while, she was placed back on the line where she worked for a week or so and eventually was terminated, just like that. The reason for her termination was that she did not clock in one day–but that is not true. We all think it was because she could no longer perform job duties due to her injuries.

These workers put their lives on the line every day, with tired bodies and painful injuries to support their families. The companies should pay them much more because they deserve more. And they should make sure they have adequate breaks, and sick time – but also, dignity. They are hard-working people, not robots. Facebook Twitter Instagram YouTube Google+