May 11, 2016, 2:58 PM EDT May 12, 2016, 12:00 AM EDT
Workers in plants run by the largest U.S. poultry producers are regularly being denied bathroom breaks and as a result some are reduced to wearing diapers while working on the processing line, Oxfam America said in a report Wednesday.
“It’s not just their dignity that suffers: they are in danger of serious health problems,” said Oxfam America, the U.S. arm of the U.K.-based global development group. The group works for a “just world without poverty” and focuses on topics ranging from refugees in Greece to malnutrition.
The report cited unnamed workers from Tyson Foods Inc., Pilgrim’s Pride Corp., Perdue Farms Inc. and Sanderson Farms Inc. who said that supervisors mock them, ignore requests and threaten punishment or firing. When they can go, they wait in long lines even though they are given limited time, sometimes 10 minutes, according to the report. Some workers have urinated or defecated themselves while working because they can’t hold on any longer, the report said. Some workers “restrict intake of liquids and fluids to dangerous degrees,” Oxfam said.
Conditions for workers in the meat industry have been known as being notoriously poor since the days of Upton Sinclair, the American author who wrote of abuses in his 1906 novel, “The Jungle.” In a 2015 report, Oxfam said the cost of cheap chicken in the U.S. is workers who face low wages, suffer elevated rates of injury and illness and face a climate of fear in the workplace. The industry was also highlighted in the 2008 documentary Food Inc.
The conditions present difficulties, especially for menstruating or pregnant women, according to the latest report. Workers could also face medical problems, including urinary tract infections, and managers have told some workers to eat and drink less to avoid going to the bathroom, according to the report.
Sanderson Chief Financial Officer Mike Cockrell declined to comment on the Oxfam report in an e-mail.
Tyson said in an e-mailed statement that it does “not tolerate the refusal of requests to use the restroom.” Perdue said in an e-mailed response that the “anecdotes reported are not consistent” with the company’s policies and practices. Pilgrim’s Pride said in an e-mailed statement that “any allegations of the nature claimed by Oxfam, if proven, would be clear violations of company policy and would result in disciplinary action.”
“We value our team members and treat them with respect,” according to an e-mailed statement from Tyson. The company is “concerned about these anonymous claims, and while we currently have no evidence they’re true, are checking to make sure our position on restroom breaks is being followed and our team members’ needs are being met,” according to the statement.
“Regarding bathroom breaks, our associates receive two 30-minutes breaks during each eight-hour shift,” Perdue said. “If an associate is unable to wait for the scheduled break and needs to use the restroom, they are to be given permission to leave the line as soon as someone can cover for them.”
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“Bathroom breaks have not been raised as an issue in any of our internal team member satisfaction surveys, nor in the results of our third-party-conducted sustainable safety culture surveys,” Pilgrim’s Pride said. “Team member health and safety is an integral part of our sustainability commitment, fundamental to who we are as proud members of American agriculture, and a priority for our more than 37,000 team members.”
The anecdotes in the Oxfam report don’t represent the whole industry, the National Chicken Council and the U.S. Poultry & Egg Association said in a joint statement Tuesday.
“We’re troubled by these claims, but also question this group’s efforts to paint the whole industry with a broad brush based on a handful of anonymous claims,” the groups said. “We believe such instances are extremely rare and that U.S. poultry companies work hard to prevent them.”