As I feast with loved ones during this holiday season, I'm thinking about more than how moist the turkey is. As an anthropologist who focuses on race, work and migration in the United States, I'm also remembering the roughly 250,000 people—mostly people of color, immigrants and refugees—who hang, trim, debone and package the birds so many Americans love to to eat.

I have been studying the $50 billion industry for more than a decade. For six years in Mississippi I talked to workers, their supporters and industry executives in the communities where these plants operate. There I met Moisés,* a slight man in his early 30s. Moisés had moved from Chiapas, Mexico, more than a decade before to create a better life for his family, and he had been slaughtering and dressing poultry for Tyson for five years. Despite regularly working overtime, Moisés and his family shared a dilapidated two-bedroom trailer with several others.

These living conditions are not uncommon for poultry workers, who earn about $11 an hour. The real value of their wages has declined almost 40 percent since the 1980s, as the pay has not kept pace with increases in cost of living. Many workers are near the poverty line and rely on public assistance programs such as food stamps and the National School Lunch program to make ends meet. At the same time, the poultry industry is enjoying healthy profits, and executive compensation is soaring. The president and CEO of Tyson earned $12.2 million in 2014—550 times what the average worker makes.

No sick time, plenty of injuries

In addition to making low wages poultry workers do not accrue sick time, forcing them to work while ill or sacrifice crucial pay. The factory processing lines are loud, cold and fast, with line speeds up to 140 birds per minute. The government regulates line speed in terms of “food safety,” but does not evaluate how it impacts workers’ well-being. Forced to repeat the same cutting, pulling and hanging motions more than 20,000—and up to 100,000—times every day, the people doing these jobs suffer debilitating musculoskeletal injuries, including carpal tunnel syndrome, at seven times the average of other U.S. workers. Amputations occur at three times the average. Overall, poultry workers suffer occupational illnesses five times more often than other U.S. workers. 

Once injured, poultry workers often receive inadequate medical care from their companies, and face discrimination, harassment and even termination for reporting injuries. When Moisés injured his left hand in a workplace accident, Tyson allowed him to continue working—with just one hand. A repetitive motion injury eventually crippled his other arm and Moisés was fired. In the months that followed, he struggled to gain access to basic medical care and workers’ compensation benefits. “As long as we can work 100 percent, everything’s fine," Moisés lamented. "But if we ask for medical attention, they get rid of us. They should treat us like human beings, not like machines.” His experiences echo those highlighted in a recent Oxfam America report, Lives on the Line," that suggests that poultry companies regularly deny care and compensation to sick workers.

A climate of fear

Many analysts say that the poultry industry deliberately takes advantage of the special demographics of the workforce to create a climate of fear in poultry plants. In the Oxfam report, Rosa, who worked in an Arkansas poultry plant noted, “They want submissive employees. For them, a happy employee is a quiet one.”

A wide range of workers told me that supervisors, the people who have the most direct power over their livelihoods, receive little management training and are under intense pressure to keep up with production. Some said their supervisors were fair, but many others said their supervisors pushed them to the brink, using tactics that were rough and sometimes abusive. Many workers spoke of racial slurs, being denied bathroom breaks based on race, and being derided for reporting pain or illness. Because supervisors have so much power, many workers are afraid to speak up about injuries, illness, problems with the poultry, line speed or bathroom breaks. They work through pain at a relentless pace, keeping their heads down out of fear of reprisal.

Put workers first

Poultry production has been transformed from a backyard endeavor into one of the most highly specialized and labor-intensive forms of agriculture in the world. The industry has consolidated and integrated to the point that workers are treated as expendable and infinitely replaceable, recruited from across the globe to do  jobs that many believe Americans don’t want. Indeed, by 2000, more than half of the country’s quarter million poultry workers were immigrants or refugees. These are the very people who conservative politicians have been demonizing lately, calling them criminals, rapists, drug traffickers, even terrorists. A “We come to work, and we want to do it well," Fernando, a Tyson employee from Uruguay, told me. "We come simply out of necessity. We don’t want to be seen as criminals or terrorists. If we are terrorists, we are the terrorists of the tomatoes, the oranges, the chickens. Nothing more.”

As conscientious consumers, we have an important role to play. Due to increasing pressure from customers, the overuse of antibiotics and hormones in poultry has decreased dramatically. Similarly, consumers have spoken out about how animals are treated in industrial agriculture, and conditions have slowly started to improve. It’s past time to recognize that the food system is not just until workers’ basic rights are respected.

We can—we must—call upon the poultry industry to put its people first. This call should include Tyson Foods, Pilgrim’s, Perdue and Sanderson Farms, the poultry companies that control nearly 60 percent of the U.S. chicken industry.


It’s not uncommon for poultry processors to give out turkeys to their employees when the holidays roll around. But these workers need more than charity—they need dignity, fair compensation and safeguards. Instead of handouts this year, give them justice. Make time this holiday season to learn more about the industry. Buy from companies that respect, safeguard and pay their workers fairly, and take action, together.

Angela Stuesse is an assistant professor of Anthropology at the University of South Florida in Tampa and the author of "Scratching Out a Living: Latinos, Race, and Work in the Deep South." 

 

*Names have been changed to protect workers' identity.