Denial of bathroom use at forefront of poultry worker complaints
A friend sent me a post from the U.S. Department of Labor blog to settle a friendly dispute over poultry processing works rights and free access to the bathroom. I was adamant in my belief that poultry workers had “at need access” in using a bathroom because this same abuse was fought at least 15 years ago by a community organization I worked for, the Delmarva Poultry Justice Alliance (DPJA). I’m going back to the late 1990’s – early 2000’s.
At that time the basic right of workers using a bathroom was denied because it would slow down or stop the processing line. To do so would cost the company dollars and in their greed stopping the line was not an option.
I was shocked to learn that people were denied use of the bathroom and I couldn’t fathom urinating on one’s self. I doubt that most of us could identify with such conditions, let alone being the one to say “no you can’t use the bathroom”. Unfortunately, my tenure as the executive director of DPJA brought many such shocks, and not to discount other serious issues, right now, I’m taking about using the bathroom.
No poultry company on the Delmarva Peninsula was immune from the complaints made by their workers. Stories from the workers encompassed many complaints such as urinating on their selves, pregnant workers being denied bathroom use as needed, and break time lines for bathroom use so long that the ten minutes allowed for a break were eaten up just standing in line waiting to use a toilet.
From the industry point of view, excuses were made such as workers abused bathroom breaks, no alternate or fill in workers were available to replace a worker leaving the line, and they get a ten-minute break to use the bathroom. Company flat out denial of worker complaints was the most used response.
Any worker who complained to supervisors or company powers that be, very quickly found their selves out the door. As most workers were undocumented immigrants, fear of reprisals kept them quiet. From my point of view I found it as being a method of control and exploitation.
As a matter of fact, DPJA lead a protest in Georgetown, DE, in front of one Delmarva poultry processing plant to deliver a letter to the company owner as an informational method of complaints by workers for abuses occurring inside the plant. The protest involved community members, church leaders, workers, and alliance members. Denial of bathroom use was one of the worker’s complaints. Afterwards workers reported that some things had changed and that those abusing basic human rights for workers were no longer there.
Fast forward to 2016
From all indications and as much as I hate to say it, my friend is correct. I have to concede to her as the winner of our debate. What a hollow victory! It boggles my mind to think that the very same issue is once again at the forefront of poultry processing plant worker’s complaints. Did industry learn nothing or is it a matter of continuing with a bad legacy until caught? I’m not particularly fond of the saying, “history repeats itself”, especially when it is a not so good history.
“For some workers, a simple trip to the bathroom could result in the loss of a job. Poultry-processing workers are sometimes disciplined for taking bathroom breaks while at work because there is no one available to fill in for them if they step away from the production line. Some workers have reported that they wear diapers and restrict liquid intake in an effort to avoid using the bathroom. No one should have to work under these conditions. All workers have a right to a safe workplace, and that includes access to readily available sanitary restroom facilities on the job. Poultry processing is one of the most dangerous industries in the United States, and readily accessible restrooms are only one of many problems that workers in this industry face.” Dr. David Michaels, Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health Administration
Although this blog post was written back in July 2016, it’s relevant to the debate between my friend and I. She further burst my bubble with a link to a 2015 report published by Oxfam America. After reading it I thought to myself that nothing has changed. Over all of the time that passed between my employment at DPJA to the 2015 Oxfam report the simple basic human right of using the bathroom is being denied by employers in the poultry industry.
Coming from a common sense point of view, it’s obvious that denial of bathroom use is blatant and those practicing the behavior are unashamed. I think it takes a seriously disturbed person to find amusement in the behavior indicated in the Oxfam report.
“Routinely, poultry workers say, they are denied breaks to use the bathroom. Supervisors mock their needs and ignore their requests; they threaten punishment or firing. Workers wait inordinately long times (an hour or more), then race to accomplish the task within a certain timeframe (e.g., ten minutes) or risk discipline.” Quote from Oxfam America report, “No Relief, Denial of Bathroom Breaks In The Poultry Industry”
For poultry workers having to come forward and speak about the goings on inside processing plants must be a humiliating experience. I, myself, wouldn’t want to have to tell anyone that I wear a diaper to work or that I defecate or urinate on myself while working. I can’t imagine!
Where are those who would ensure such a basic right? This type of abuse should not be tolerated by poultry company owners, stockholders, or consumers. Obviously, our government is aware of the situation, what is being done about it? We are supposed to be a civilized society. Is the processing of one more chicken, in the millions that are slaughtered every day, more important?
This subject started as a friendly debate and has turned in to a feeling of outrage. Again! I’m sure that I’ll write plenty more on this subject as I digest all that I’ve read. What does it take to end a vicious cycle of history repeating itself?