Painful muscle and joint conditions, increased risk of lung disease and shocking examples of mistreatment in the workplace are commonplace. Reports also tell of workers urinating on the floor because they can’t take breaks and a condition nick-named "claw hand".
If you think the factory-farming production system is only bad for the animals involved, think again. The price paid by the workers is yet another hidden "cost" of a system that prioritises quantity of production and profit above all else.
Factory farming chicken meat in Georgia
This week, we’re focusing on the US state of Georgia, the "poultry capital of the world".1 Georgia is the largest chicken-meat producer in the US, rearing 1.4 billion "broilers" annually – "broilers" are chickens used for meat rather than eggs. We’ve asked you to take action on the environmental problems caused by intensive chicken farming in Georgia. Now, from our background report,1 we're sharing some of the eye-opening stories about the conditions that the farm workers have to endure.
Keeping up with the production line
Poultry-processing plants of the scale common in Georgia routinely slaughter and process more than 200,000 birds a day.2 The more animals processed a day, the higher the companies' profits. But the rapid pace and repetition inherent in the production-line style of working cause a number of problems for workers:
- Hand, wrist, arm, shoulder and back pain are vividly described by workers. There is a long list of musculoskeletal disorders that result from workers repeating the same finger, hand, wrist, arm and shoulder motions required to saw, trim and cut pieces of meat – as many as 20,000 to 30,000 times a day.3
- Toilet breaks are routinely denied. Workers have described having to urinate on themselves out of fear of losing their job.4
- "Claw-hand" is the nickname for the condition often developed by workers from gripping so many chickens so tightly over the years. This happens when catching them from the hen houses for transportation and slaughter, as well as at the processing plant, where they're hung onto moving lines by their feet. This worker, interviewed by Human Rights Watch, was left with his fingers stuck in a claw-like condition:
I hung the live birds on the line. Grab, reach, lift, jerk. Without stopping for hours every day. Only young, strong guys can do it. But after a time, you see what happens. Your arms stick out and your hands are frozen. Look at me now. I’m twenty-two years old, and I feel like an old man.3
Due to a lack of legal protection and a general climate of fear of losing their jobs, many workers’ injuries go unreported, and therefore uncompensated and untreated.3 As elsewhere in the US, over half of poultry-plant workers are women, and at least half are Latino.5 Most of the workforce has no health insurance and are unlikely to be able to afford or access adequate medical care.
- Few of the health and safety protections necessary exist. And those that do – such as provision of personal protective equipment – are violated frequently. A 2010 Bureau of Labor Statistics report listed poultry processing among the industries with the highest rates of total nonfatal occupational illness cases.6
- Although there is an emergency "stop" button for when the line speed is too fast, workers have reportedly been fired for pressing it. Workers also reported that companies do not listen to requests to slow down the line speed.4 Without time to pause and sharpen knives and scissors, each cut becomes harder and riskier work. So, as well as increasing the risk of developing repetitive-motion disorders, injuries become more likely at higher speeds.
- Many poultry-processing workers have been subjected to sexual harassment by supervisors or co-workers,7 as well as experiencing racial discrimination.8 This harassment is difficult for workers to report, often because of language barriers, as well as fears over job losses for being seen as "whistle blowers".
What can be done?
There are many ways that working conditions could be improved – from the enforcement of better safety regulation to the provision of appropriate medical treatment and affordable health insurance.
But when chickens are raised and slaughtered for meat at the pace which is demanded by factory farming on this scale, it is inevitable that workers will end up paying the price with their health, safety and working conditions.
Find out about Georgians for Pastured Poultry, an alliance formed to promote higher-welfare, pasture-raised poultry in Georgia. You can also download and read the full report.
- Out of Sight, Out of Mind: The Impacts of chicken meat factory farming in the State of Georgia (2012), produced by CIWF USA for Georgians for Pastured Poultry
- Poultry Processing: Measuring True Water Use, The University of Georgia Cooperative Extension (2011), Kiepper B. via Out of Sight, Out of Mind (as above).
- Blood, Sweat, and Fear: Workers’ Rights in US Meat and Poultry Plants (2004), Human Rights Watch via Out of Sight, Out of Mind (as above).
- Priyanka Pathak interview of Tom Fritzsche (2012), Southern Poverty Law Center via Out of Sight, Out of Mind (as above).
- The New Factories in the Fields: Georgia Poultry Workers. Southern Changes, Vol.19, No. 3–4. (1997), Guthey, G. via Out of Sight, Out of Mind (as above).
- Food Processing Occupations: Bureau of Labor Statistics (2011), US Department of Labor via Out of Sight, Out of Mind (as above).
- Injustice on Our Plates: Immigrant Women in the US Food Industry (2010), Southern Poverty Law Center via Out of Sight, Out of Mind (as above).
- Evidence of Organizational Injustice in Poultry Processing Plants: Possible Effects on Occupational Health and Safety Among Latino Workers in North Carolina (2009), American Journal of Industrial Medicine via Out of Sight, Out of Mind (as above).