First Person

Big poultry uses human beings like machines

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An unidentified poultry worker debones chicken at a processing plant in Montgomery, Ala. The author of this blog, José, did similar work at a Pilgrim’s plant in Alabama. He reports that he deboned 42 to 52 chickens per minute. Relentless repetitions of the same cutting motion, aggravated by dull knives and awkward ergonomic design, cripple many workers with musculoskeletal disorders, including carpal tunnel syndrome and tendinitis. Photo by Earl Dotter / Oxfam America

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.

José (not his real name), 35, came to the US from Puerto Rico through a labor contractor to work at a chicken plant in Alabama. He suffered injury, racism, and economic hardship, and was eventually fired.

The newspaper ad for the job made it sound really good: $11.25 an hour, and just $45 a week for an apartment. I was living in Puerto Rico, where the economy is bad, and all I had to do was pay for a plane ticket to the US. A labor contractor placed the ad for the job, at a Pilgrim’s poultry plant in Alabama.

When I got to the US, though, the situation turned out to be very different. They put me in an apartment with three other people; all the furniture was soiled, and the bed reeked of urine. And the numbers were all wrong: I paid $65 a week for the apartment, plus $20 a week for the ride to work (it was a 12-minute ride and there was no other way to get there).

And the job only paid $8.40 an hour. When I asked my supervisor about the fact that the ad promised $11.25, he just said it was “una mentira” – a lie.

And the work on the processing line was brutal. I worked in the deboning department, as a hanger of chickens. We had to process 42 to 52 chickens each minute. I think they based the speed on the machine–they compare humans to machines. But it was just too much.

Every day, people were in pain. My hand hurt a lot, and my fingers and my back. At night, I would just lie there, in pain. When I went to the infirmary, they’d give me these unlabeled pain pills and tell me that the pain would go away. I didn’t trust those pills, so I didn’t take them.

And it was really cold in the plants, like 40 degrees. If you needed to go to the bathroom, you had to ask for permission.

The people I worked with were Mexicans, Guatemalans, and a few African-Americans. The only white Americans were those who watched over us, doing quality control. There were a lot of racist comments.

My supervisor had a bad reputation; he was abusive to a lot of people. Many women had filed sexual harassment complaints about him, saying he offered to trade favors for sex.

One time, on the hanging line, he assigned me to work with a 70-year-old man. He was just not fast enough to keep up with the line. When I confronted the supervisor about it, he got right up close to me, and pointed to my chest, and yelled, “If you don’t like it, you can go home.” When I told him he was being disrespectful, he went to the plant management; they fired me and I was evicted from the apartment.

Since then, I found a job at a different plant, packing chicken breasts; and I found another place to live.

The people who run poultry plants, they don’t care, they don’t think of the consequences to the workers.

José asked to be identified by a pseudonym out of fear of retribution, and declined to provide a photo. Thanks to the Southern Poverty Law Center for providing access to José.

See what it takes to get chicken to your plate and change lives on the line.

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