Restaurant Workers Live Close to Poverty Line, Study Finds
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According to a study from the Economic Policy Institute, restaurant workers are much more likely than workers outside the industry to be poor or near-poor.
A study conducted by the Economic Policy Institute which looked at labor in the restaurant industry throughout the United States found that over 43 percent of all restaurant workers are living at or below twice the poverty line.
Almost half of those workers, 6 to 25 percent (approximately) of all workers in the industry from cashiers and dishwashers to managers, are living at or below the poverty level.
Currently, the U.S. restaurant industry employs 5.5 million women and 5.1 million men, nearly a quarter of whom are waitstaff with an average wage of $10.15 an hour, including tips. The industry’s highest-paid employees are managers, who have an average wage of $15.42 an hour, the study found.
Other key findings from the study include the fact that nearly twice as many undocumented workers are employed within the restaurant industry than not (15.7 percent in the industry compared to 8.2 percent outside the industry), and that only 14.4 percent of restaurant employees had access to employer-provided healthcare, compared to 48.7 percent of workers in other industries.
Even after applying controls for demographics which have lower wages on average in any industry (e.g., women, non-naturalized immigrants, those with a high school degree or less, racial and ethnic minorities, and young workers), the study found that restaurant employees were subject to the “wage penalty,” according to which, even taking into account “the difference between the hourly wages earned by a restaurant worker and those earned by a demographically similar worker in another industry,” restaurant workers are paid about 17 percent less than their non-food service industry counterparts.
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Karen Lo is an associate editor at The Daily Meal. Follow her on Twitter @appleplexy.
ANOTHER VIEWPOINT: Raise the federal minimum wage
At $7.25 an hour, the federal minimum wage is appallingly low.
It’s so low that a full-time worker making the federal minimum wage qualifies for food stamps, and a single parent working 40 hours a week falls below the poverty line. It’s hard to fathom how an adult could afford rent, food, transportation or a decent standard of living on the minimum wage salary of $15,000 a year, much less save money for a rainy day.
Yet an estimated 1.7 million workers across the U.S. are paid the federal minimum wage, which hasn’t been increased since 2009. These workers — along with other low-wage workers earning less than $15 an hour, who make up 20% of the nation’s workforce — are long overdue for a raise.
Congress is now debating whether to include President Joe Biden’s proposal for a $15 minimum wage in the next COVID-19 relief package, while also eliminating the tip credit that allows restaurant workers in 43 states to be paid as little as $2.13 an hour. Lawmakers shouldn’t be swayed by naysayers and pessimists who argue that the pay hike is too much, too soon. Gradually raising the minimum wage to $15 will lift more working people out of poverty and help begin to reduce the yawning income inequality gap in this country.
While the federal minimum wage stagnated over the last decade, cities and states have raised their pay floor. Twenty-nine states and more than 40 cities have set base pay above $7.25. Florida has passed legislation to raise its minimum gradually to $15 by the year 2026. Many other states are already at $15 an hour or will get there in the next year or two, including Los Angeles and San Francisco, as well as the states of California and Massachusetts. And many have pegged future wage hikes to inflation so the pay floor will continue to rise.
Biden’s proposed hike is likely to lead some businesses to raise prices, increase automation or pare their payrolls. But that’s just half the picture. The Congressional Budget Office projected that the higher wage would raise the purchasing power of an estimated 27 million workers, lifting 900,000 out of poverty. That additional economic activity would boost the overall economy, at least temporarily …
The Raise the Wage Act would increase the minimum wage to $9.50 an hour in June. Then it would rise every year until it hits $15 in June 2025. After that, the minimum wage would increase annually with growth in the median wage. That’s important. Workers shouldn’t have to wait a decade or more for lawmakers to find the political will to raise the minimum wage. Guaranteeing that the minimum wage rises with inflation would help ensure that the lowest-paid workers don’t get left behind again.
There is considerable pushback to $15 an hour from lawmakers in low-cost states where the increase from $7.25 would be a considerable change. In Mississippi, a $15 minimum wage would give almost half of all workers a raise, the New York Times reported. Mississippi also has one of the highest poverty rates in the country.
Skeptics of minimum wage increases fixate on the potential job losses as reason not to embrace the $15 target. But Congress can — and should — enact tax policies and financial incentives to help employers, particularly small business, adjust to the pay mandate and help preserve jobs.
Minimum Wage Too Low to Keep Working Families Out of Poverty, New Report Finds
WASHINGTON - The federal minimum wage is leaving millions of families in poverty, according to a new study prepared by the Government Accountability Office for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
Only 5 percent or less of families with a low-wage worker received TANF cash assistance at least once in the last year between 1995 and 2016.
- In 2016, most single-parent families (82 percent) with a minimum wage earner lived below 200 percent of the federal poverty line.
- In 2016, 37 percent of all families with a minimum wage earner lived below 200 percent of the federal poverty line. Twenty-four percent of all families earning between $12 to $16 per hour lived below 200 percent of the federal poverty line.
- A hypothetical low-wage worker ages 25 to 64:
- earning $7.25 per hour or less would have annual earnings of $12,441 – making them eligible for Medicaid, SNAP, EITC and ACTC
- earning $7.25 to $12 per hour would have annual earnings of $20,592 – making them eligible for Medicaid, SNAP, EITC and ACTC
- earning $12 to $16 per hour would have annual earnings of $30,784 – making them eligible for EITC and ACTC
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New poor, the new reality
Economist Hossain Zillur Rahman observes that there are many people who are sliding into poverty, who were earlier not counted as the poor. This band of people, he finds, includes urban lower middle class. Currently, Executive Chairman of PPRC and Chairperson of BRAC, Dr Rahman writes how the concept of the new poor has evolved in the recent context of global coronavirus pandemic.
Economist Hossain Zillur Rahman: A perceptive observer of changing social dynamics. Photo: Kazi Mukul.
The ‘new poor’ is a concept we developed to express a new reality as coming out of the PPRC-BIGD rapid response surveys during April-October, 2020. People who were subsisting above the poverty line income in Bangladesh were suddenly pushed below the poverty line by the economic shock of Covid-19 induced disruptions in livelihoods and economic activities. The ‘new poor’ are groups who traditionally do not queue up for relief and are socially averse to seeking handouts. But the extreme distress caused by the Covid-19 crisis are forcing these groups either to suffer in silence or shed their social inhibitions and join the queue for relief.
This band of people includes various occupational groups who make up the numerically large urban lower middle class. Such groups include rickshaw-pullers, drivers, security guards, maids, petty traders, transport workers, restaurant workers etc. We felt it was important to coin a new term to express this new reality so as better to engage the attention of the policy-makers. This is important because in addition to the traditional approach to poverty alleviation, a new set of policy approach is required to address the ‘new poor’. I feel vindicated that the new coinage found quick traction and even the government appears to have taken note by announcing an emergency cash transfer program precisely for such groups who are mostly in the urban setting.
The PPRC-BIGD survey also found an additional dynamic related to the ‘new poor’ many of whom had to abandon the cities to return to their rural roots. We termed this phenomenon ‘reverse migration’. Our survey showed Dhaka City experienced 16% of the surveyed population had left the cities by June, 2020. What we found was that these ‘reverse migrants’ were not from the ranks of the extreme poor but in fact were very much from the ranks of the ‘new poor’. The main reasons they were forced to abandon their city dreams, at least for a while, was the twin pressures of income loss and fixed expenditure burdens. Many of these expenditure burdens stem from specific policy biases against the service needs of the urban disadvantaged groups. For example the house rent is an essential cost and it is type of expenditure that it cannot be avoided. However, rent levels faced by the urban poor are also an outcome of a lack of policy focus on affordable housing. Cost of utilities, healthcare, transportation all stem from such policy biases against the service needs of the poorer segments of the urban population.
Hossain Zillur Rahman widely known for his insight into poverty trends
Since the resumption of economic activities, some of the ‘new poor’ may be returning. But this is not across the board but specific to occupations. Rickshaw-pulling has bounced back so has construction sector labour jobs. But occupations such as private tuition, work at restaurants and many other informal sector jobs remain uncertain at best. Even for those occupations which have bounced back, our June findings indicated that activity recovery had not translated into comparable earnings recovery.
The pandemic is a global issue. What I really see is: what will happen to the people who are not so powerful, what we really need to do for them. First of all the vaccination or other remedy should not be considered through a commercial approach. Ultimately we have to give emphasis on the cumulative initiatives and efforts. There is no alternative to this. It cannot be solved through commercial approach alone.
$10.10 Minimum Wage Would Actually Create New Jobs: Study
Raising the minimum wage would help the working poor and give the entire economy a boost, a new analysis finds.
If the minimum wage rose to $10.10 per hour, as Senate Democrats and President Barack Obama propose, 27.8 million workers would see their wages go up as a direct or indirect result of the boost, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank. These workers would take home about $35 billion in additional wages and they would probably spend it, as low-income people living with little financial cushion tend to do.
The result: During the initial phase-in period, the U.S. economy would grow by about $22 billion, EPI found. The growth in the U.S. economy would result in about 85,000 new jobs, according to EPI. That counters arguments from conservative economists that raising the minimum wage could actually hurt the working poor by making employers hesitant to hire more workers. (A notion that’s been proven wrong by some economists and remains hotly debated.)
The analysis is an update to a similar report released by EPI earlier this year. It takes into account the fact that five states recently raised their minimum wage, meaning workers living in those states would feel less of an impact from a federal minimum wage boost than when EPI published the original research in March.
“A lot of states and even a lot of municipalities have all boosted their minimum wages out of a recognition that the federal minimum wage is just too low,” David Cooper, an economic analyst with EPI and the author of the report told The Huffington Post. “Because Congressional action is so hard to come by these days, they’re not going to wait.”
EPI's report adds to a growing body of evidence indicating that raising the federal minimum wage from its current $7.25 per hour would help a large swath of Americans. A June study from Restaurant Opportunities Centers United found that a $10.10 minimum wage would have been enough to push more than half of the nation’s 10 million-plus working poor out of poverty in 2011.
Today’s minimum wage isn’t enough for a family of two to live above the poverty line, according to the EPI study. In fact, it takes an hourly wage of $10.20 per hour for a single person to afford basic needs in America’s cheapest county, according to a July analysis from Wider Opportunities for Women. That wasn’t always the case, as Cooper noted: “The increase that is proposed would get us back to almost exactly what we would had as a real value of the minimum wage in the 1960’s.”
Lawmakers would have to propose a minimum wage increase even well beyond the $15 minimum wage that fast food workers demanded in protests earlier this year in order to establish a minimum wage that’s kept up with productivity. Some researchers estimate the wage floor would be as high as $21.72 per hour if it kept up with increases in worker productivity. The chart below from EPI pegs it at about $18.30 per hour.
And perhaps that’s something lawmakers should consider, after all this latest minimum wage proposal is smaller in percentage terms than past increases, EPI found. “(The bill) is a modest proposal but its a step in the right direction towards restoring the value in the minimum wage,” Cooper said.
Africare: Promoting Sustainable Development in Chad
Chad, a landlocked country in Sub-Saharan Africa, is one of the poorest countries in the world. With a poverty rate of around 40%, Chad’s life expectancy is only 58.3 years. Only two million of the roughly four million people in dire need of assistance are actually receiving any. Additionally, Chad is surrounded by countries undergoing civil wars, putting further pressure on its infrastructure through refugee flows and inhibiting sustainable development in Chad.
Chad was also hit especially hard by the HIV/AIDS epidemic, with 120,000 people living with HIV in 2018. HIV/AIDS in Chad spread quickly due to a lack of healthcare infrastructure. The country has very few healthcare workers. There are only 3.7 doctors for every 100,000 people throughout the entire country. This is even worse in rural areas, given that healthcare workers are concentrated in just 1 region. In this 1 region, 65% of the entire country of Chad’s doctors practice medicine.
Fortunately, some organizations are stepping in order to try and solve this problem through sustainable development. These organizations believe that the best way to ensure that Chad can grow and reduce poverty is to build business infrastructure locally to create long-term growth. One such organization is Africare. Founded as a partnership between Africans and Americans in 1970, this organization has since grown to span much of the continent. Overall, they have donated approximately $2 billion dollars since 1970 towards developing the economies of 38 African countries.
Africare in Chad
The focus of Africare is on sustainable development, attempting to build enough capacity within countries to make sure the country can sustain itself and reduce poverty in the long term. One notable program in Chad is the Initiative for the Economic Empowerment of Women Entrepreneurs (IEEWEP). The IEEWP, founded in 2008 seeks to uplift communities by providing education, skills training, and economic assistance to women in order to allow them to start businesses. The ultimate goal is to foster sustainable development in Chad.
The IEEWP has been a big success. The projects to develop human capital have already generated returns. Within the first three years of its existence, 1,600 women were trained by the IEEWP, increasing their incomes by 60%. Africare has also encouraged women to become more involved and take more of a leadership role at a local level. One important way they accomplish this is by making sure that 95% of their field staff are women, thus ensuring that women possess a voice within the communities they serve. Putting women at the forefront of the organization, Africare hopes, can help create sustainable development in Chad.
The IEEWP works by partnering with local communities and entrepreneurs in order to support them. In one program, the IEEWP worked with a group of 18 existing entrepreneurs in order to start a restaurant. In 2006, 18 women, calling themselves “Mbailassem” or “God help us”, partnered to produce cassava together on a farm. Seeing their drive, the IEEWP decided to help Mbailassem start a restaurant in Southern Chad.
After initially assisting in running the restaurant, and helping with some financial objectives, the restaurant eventually became economically sustainable and paid their loans back within a year. The women of Mbailassem also succeeded in starting a new location of their restaurant, further improving both their own economic situation and the economic situation of the communities they are working in. Africare hopes that entrepreneurs like Mbailassem can help build sustainable development in Chad, and ultimately all across Africa.
Overall, Chad is struggling to see long-term growth across the country. However, progress on a smaller scale in individual communities concerning the growth of businesses shows some promise. Applying this same model in various communities across the country could help foster sustainable development in Chad.
You Can Make a Difference
The human cost doesn't have to be this high
You have the power as a consumer to speak out to the giant companies.
Every day, thousands of people head to work in a thriving industry. They process the chicken that lands on our plates in homes, schools, and restaurants. But these people—poultry workers—do not share in the bounty. Instead, they earn poverty-level wages, suffer debilitating injuries, and experience a climate of fear.
It does not have to be this way.
You can speak out to the giant companies: Tell Big Poultry to treat their workers with respect and dignity.
Tell Big Poultry.
Big Poultry can and should implement changes that would quickly improve conditions for these workers.
The top four can lead the way. Tyson Foods, Pilgrim’s, Perdue, and Sanderson Farms together employ over 100,000 poultry processing workers and control almost 60 percent of the market. The entire poultry industry employs practices that exploit their workers, but these four companies, as industry leaders, have the ability to make changes across the entire poultry industry.
Should we all stop eating chicken?
You've heard about the problem. Is giving up chicken the solution?
Now you know more about what goes on behind the walls of those poultry plants.
Poultry workers and others have tried to influence the industry but Big Poultry has failed to make a commitment to workers. So what will it take?
Tyson Foods, Pilgrim’s, Perdue, and Sanderson Farms may not listen to workers but they care what you think. Consumers have already pushed Big Poultry to change: Tyson Foods, Pilgrim’s, and Perdue have all recently pledged to phase out the use of antibiotics from their chicken supply chain. People spoke and they listened.
They’ll listen again. Take action now.
Sign the petition
Fear has kept many poultry workers silent. You don’t have to be.
Lives on the Line
© 2015 Oxfam America Inc. All rights reserved.
Oxfam America is a global organization working to right the wrongs of poverty, hunger, and injustice. As one of 17 members of the international Oxfam confederation, we work with people in more than 90 countries to create lasting solutions.
Oxfam America is a 501(c)(3) organization. Privacy & Legal
Lives on the Line
© 2015 Oxfam America Inc. All rights reserved.
Oxfam America is a global organization working to right the wrongs of poverty, hunger, and injustice. As one of 17 members of the international Oxfam confederation, we work with people in more than 90 countries to create lasting solutions.
Oxfam America is a 501(c)(3) organization. Privacy & Legal
ABOUT THIS SITE
How does the chicken you eat get to you? There is growing public awareness of the treatment of animals in our food chain, but sometimes the treatment of workers attracts less public attention. This site is the result of research conducted by Oxfam on poultry workers in the US. We collected stories, photos, and video from these workers—women and men who want you to understand what’s wrong with the industry and how you can help them.
- A note about privacy
- Poultry companies’ policies on workers
- What people are saying
- Learn more
A note about privacy
Most of the workers interviewed by Oxfam requested the use of pseudonyms out of fear of retribution. We have included related details about their jobs and plants where they worked, but have omitted locations in most cases to offer some privacy.
Many workers generously agreed to be interviewed, and/or photographed and filmed with the explicit goal of sharing their stories and experiences with the public. If workers were concerned about the consequences to themselves and their families if they spoke publicly, we offered to conceal their identities further by filming them back-lit or showing only their hands.
Oxfam America conducted research on the poultry industry from 2013 to 2015. The research entailed literature and primary document review and interviews to provide an empirical description of the status of poultry processing workers in the current context of the US poultry sector.
Oxfam staff traveled to Arkansas, North Carolina, and Mississippi to conduct dozens of semi-structured interviews with current and former workers, worker advocates, attorneys, medical experts, analysts, and others in the communities.
The research also benefits from work conducted by government agencies and non-profits over many years in all, they surveyed over a thousand current and former poultry workers. In addition, our research team reviewed more than 200 works about the industry, from books to medical research. Still, a great deal of information about the industry remains unavailable (e.g., compensation and demographics).
Oxfam America reached out to all companies named in this report to share the findings of our research and engage them in dialogue about solutions. Tyson Foods and Perdue are the only companies that responded. They cited a number of policies (some public and some not) that address issues raised in Oxfam's report. The full report incorporates that feedback.
Poultry companies’ policies on workers
TYSON FOODS is the only top poultry company to have a Team Members’ Bill of Rights. In this document, the company commits to a safe workplace and to maintaining safety committees that include hourly employees. Tyson also commits to upholding several rights for workers: to file complaints with the plant safety committee without fear of reprisal to claim existing state and federal benefits to be free from discrimination and retaliation to compensation for work performed to information (including the Bill of Rights and Code of Conduct), and to understand the information being provided to choose to join together for collective bargaining to continuing training and to adequate equipment at no cost. Tyson’s Code of Conduct elaborates further, including a pledge to provide “reasonable time for necessary restroom breaks” during production shifts and to uphold the principles of human rights.
According to Tyson’s workplace safety policy on its website, all employees are to receive detailed safety training during orientation, as well as continued training, in multiple languages. Tyson maintains that many of their facilities have safety and ergonomic committees and include full-time safety managers and occupational health nurses. All Tyson employees receive health insurance, but hourly workers do not receive paid sick leave.
Tyson has established a 24-hour confidential and anonymous hotline for complaints, and has a policy to discipline anyone who retaliates against an employee. Tyson requires any worker who is injured to report it and their policy states that “corporate health and safety professionals visit each facility at least once a year and conduct a compliance audit every two years.”
Tyson Foods informed Oxfam they had commissioned a wage survey that found they pay wages which exceed those of their competitors in the poultry industry. However, Oxfam could not verify the results of the survey. Tyson also stated that they employ industrial engineers to determine appropriate speed and staffing of production lines, with safety as a key factor. This practice is not public, nor are the standards used to set staffing and line speed. Finally, Tyson stated that facility management teams conduct annual reviews to measure injury and illness rates, average lost and restricted days per case, workers’ compensation costs, absenteeism rate, and turnover, among other factors. This information is not made publicly available, so Oxfam was unable to examine the methods employed, the standards used, or the data collected. Oxfam’s research revealed conditions that do not meet Tyson’s publicly stated standards and policies. We conducted interviews with Tyson workers in multiple states, and reviewed records of documented labor violations in Tyson plants. Tyson workers consistently reported conditions that contradict Tyson policy, including, but not limited to, supervisors refusing to grant restroom breaks, workers enduring hazardous and unsafe work conditions, and workers afraid to speak out or use the hotline due to fear of reprisal. Even at Tyson’s reported wage levels, many of their workers earn wages that leave them near the poverty line. Tyson has also been officially sanctioned by governmental agencies on multiple occasions for failing to pay workers appropriately and for safety violations.
While some of Tyson’s policies on workers’ rights are ahead of industry counterparts, they still fall short in key areas, such as paid sick leave and fair compensation. But, more crucially, it is impossible to verify their policies in practice using publicly available data. For example, in Tyson Foods Sustainability Highlights for FY 2014, they cite a “10% reduction in the Total OSHA Recordable Incident Rate” since FY13 but there is no supporting information. Tyson’s internal audits are not sufficient to judge whether their publicly stated policies are being followed. The audits are limited to health and safety, rather than the full set of rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights. The audits are conducted by Tyson corporate employees, rather than independent third parties. Since the results of these audits are not made public, it is not possible to judge their efficacy. Tyson’s policies on workers’ rights lack effective measurement and transparency reporting, making meaningful accountability at the individual plant and worker level difficult to achieve and impossible to assess.
Tyson issued a formal response to Oxfam’s report, which can be found on Oxfam America's website.
PILGRIM’S claims to have released its first Corporate Responsibility report in an Investor Relations press release from 2012. However, the report has since become unavailable, and its new Corporate Responsibility page does not mention any commitments to their workers on any issues regarding compensation, health and safety, or workers’ rights.
PERDUE has a Corporate Responsibility Platform that details its commitment to its employees, food quality, the environment, and the community. The company commits to creating a “culture of safety” in its plants by setting annual Safety Score goals, allowing workers to halt production to prevent impending accidents, and offering employees the opportunity to visit Wellness Centers during work hours. Perdue has a policy on employee rights, where it pledges to incorporate associates’ voices into decision-making by encouraging employees to raise concerns with management, and “empower[ing] them to contribute ideas and identify opportunities for improvement.”
Worker testimony reveals that these policies do not always translate into practice. Perdue claims to have achieved progress on worker safety and health, but does not publicly release statistics beyond unverified claims such as “we exceeded our safety goals…by more than 18%.” Perdue’s lack of transparent reporting and public accountability mechanisms prevents a fair assessment of whether these policies are being effectively implemented in practice. Still other policies are not in sync with the company’s stated goals of empowering workers: Perdue’s aforementioned employee rights commitment maintains that a non-unionized workforce presents the “best opportunity” for them to foster a “trust based environment.”
Perdue issued a formal response to Oxfam’s report, which can be found on Oxfam America's website .
SANDERSON FARMS publishes a corporate responsibility report every year. The focus is almost entirely on environmental responsibility and improving energy, packaging, and water use. There is no mention of workers or health and safety.
Sanderson Farms sent a statement in opposition to Oxfam’s shareholder resolution concerning transparency in occupational health and safety. The statement includes information about worker health and safety in their operations. You can find the statement here.
Oxfam has been working with a number of organizations devoted to improving conditions for poultry workers across the US. In addition to Oxfam, the members of this coalition are:
- Center for Progressive Reform
- Coalition of Black Trade Unionists
- Greater Minnesota Worker Center
- Interfaith Worker Justice
- National Council of La Raza
- Nebraska Appleseed
- Northwest Arkansas Workers’ Justice Center
- Southern Poverty Law Center
- United Food and Commercial Workers International Union
- Western North Carolina Workers’ Center
We are profoundly grateful to the workers who were willing to talk honestly and openly about their experiences in the poultry industry with us. They showed great courage and grace under pressure.
In addition, we consulted numerous experts and advocates about the realities of life for poultry processing workers in the US today. We are grateful for their knowledge, commitment, and willingness to share their expertise. The following people were particularly generous with their time:
- Christopher Cook
- Tom Fritzsche
- Christopher Leonard
- Celeste Monforton
- Angela Stuesse
- Darcy Tromanhauser and Omaid Zabih of Nebraska Appleseed
- Staff at the Northwest Arkansas Workers’ Justice Center
- Staff at the Southern Poverty Law Center
- Staff at the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union
- Staff at the Western North Carolina Workers’ Center
In addition to the efforts of Oxfam’s own staff, we are indebted to those whose talents have helped us to bring this story alive:
Our thanks to Earl Dotter for photography where noted.
Our thanks to John D. Simmons/The Charlotte Observer for photography where noted.
Oxfam gratefully acknowledges the work that Brother David Henley, a member of Glenmary Home Missioners, has done to publicize the issue of conditions within poultry plants. Because very little footage exists publicly of what it looks like inside the plants, and Oxfam did not have access, we are deeply grateful to Gabriela Solis and Karina Oliva who agreed to let us use the footage from within the plants that they shot when they were journalism students. Although they shot this footage in December 2008, current and former workers agree that this is an accurate representation of current work conditions on the line.
Our thanks to Jimena Vallejo for some last minute translations.
For their deep commitment to this issue, collaboration on the site, and patience during the extensive editing process, our heartfelt thanks to the extended team at Grazioso Pictures, Inc.:
- Alan Catello Grazioso - Producer, Director, and Editor
- Patricia Alvarado Núñez - Consulting Producer
- Milton Kam - Director of Photography
- Julio Tordoya and Bacilio Castro - Field Producers (North Carolina)
- Jose Luis Aguayo and Albious Latior - Field Producers (Arkansas)
- Lynn Congo, Annette Alvarado-Cuellar, Alejandro Cuellar, Monica Núñez, and Carla Pataky - Transcriptions and translations
What people are saying
“In this groundbreaking report, Oxfam exposes an under-appreciated cost of chicken production in this country: the hazards poultry workers face. After decades of industry cost cutting and undermining worker protections, poultry workers today are among the most exploited and vulnerable. We hope this report will motivate people across the country to call on Tyson, Pilgrim’s, Perdue, and Sanderson Farms to improve working conditions and make their sector more transparent and accountable. Putting food on the table today shouldn’t cost lives.”
— Frances Moore Lappé and Anna Lappé, Founding principals, Small Planet Institute
“For over 50 years, I’ve worked with my brothers and sisters in the effort to improve conditions and wages for farm workers in the US. Just as the people who harvest our fruits and vegetables deserve justice, dignity, and fair compensation, so do other workers in the food system, including those who process the chickens that feed our families. I welcome this new effort to expose the conditions inside poultry plants, and to raise the voices and concerns of poultry workers.”
— Dolores Huerta, pioneering labor leader and co-founder of United Farm Workers
“The integrity of America’s food supply is only as strong as each of the links in the food supply chain. Alongside our abundant, safe and reasonably priced food, we need to ensure our food is produced under fair and safe working conditions. This report makes practical recommendations for improving the conditions for thousands of workers in America’s poultry industry. I welcome Oxfam’s creative thinking, and their strong commitment to innovation via public-private partnership to address the critical issues.”
— Dan Glickman, Former Secretary, United States Department of Agriculture
“Oxfam should be commended for exposing the true cost of poultry processing on worker health and safety. These workers are providing food to millions of Americans, yet don’t receive a living wage, paid time off, retirement security, or strong worker safety protections. By highlighting these conditions—and naming the companies responsible for them—Oxfam continues its long tradition of exposing problems in our global food system and supporting America’s food workers.”
— Danielle Nierenberg, President of Food Tank
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Poultry Industry Workers.” www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/poultry/process.html
Fritzsche, Tom and Southern Poverty Law Center. Unsafe at These Speeds: Alabama’s Poultry Industry and Its Disposable Workers. Montgomery, AL: SPLC and Alabama Appleseed, 2013. www.splcenter.org/20130301/unsafe-these-speeds
Hall, Kerry, and Ames Alexander and Franco Ordonez. “The Cruelest Cuts: The Human Cost of Bringing Poultry to Your Table.” The Charlotte Observer . February 2008. www.charlotteobserver.com/news/special-reports/cruelest-cuts/article9012839.html
Human Rights Watch. Blood, Sweat, and Fear: Workers’ Rights in US Meat and Poultry Plants. New York: Human Rights Watch, 2004. www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/usa0105.pdf
Leonard, Christopher. The Meat Racket: The Secret Takeover of America’s Food Business. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 2014. www.christopherleonard.biz/the-book.html
Striffler, Steve. Chicken: The Dangerous Transformation of America’s Favorite Food . New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007.
Why is Oxfam—an international humanitarian and development organization—talking about poultry workers in the US?
Oxfam’s mission is to support the efforts of people around the world who are working to lift themselves out of poverty. For some years, Oxfam has had a US program that addresses the challenges that food workers—primarily farm workers—face. It’s important to examine the supply chain in our food system, and to consider the men and women who grow, harvest, and process America’s food. Poultry workers play a central role in producing the US’s most popular meat.
Oxfam’s involvement, however, is not just about identifying a need. We focus our efforts where we feel there is both a need and where our particular skills present an opportunity to make a difference. In recent years—engaging companies from Starbucks to Coca-Cola—Oxfam has gained credibility in our work assessing corporate impact on vulnerable communities and then mobilizing the public to encourage companies to have a positive social impact. We believe that if the US public understood what poultry industry watchdogs have known for years that this issue would finally attract the broad attention it deserves, and the public would hold companies accountable.
Do these issues affect organic, free range chickens?
Many consumers make the choice to purchase organic or free-range chicken. These choices offer potential benefits to the health and well-being of both chickens and consumers (fewer chemicals for both, more humane treatment for pasture-based or free range birds).
These choices, however, have little to do with what happens next: how chickens are processed. Once chickens reach a poultry processing plant, most still go through the stages outlined on this site most workers still perform their tasks by hand in the same conditions described.
Some of the small businesses and companies that specialize in organic or free-range chickens do process their birds under different conditions. That said, some of the most popular organic and natural brands—such as Coleman Organic—are owned by the four top companies. And their chickens are processed just the way we’ve described here.
So should I stop eating chicken?
That is not what Oxfam is calling for. Our hope is that all of us who eat chicken will recognize our power as consumers to influence the industry—and to use our influence. These companies survive because of our choices. They care very much what we think.
As for eating chicken or not, that is a personal choice. We each decide what matters to us when we choose our food. We may exclude meat or eat only organic, or vegan, or fair trade. The choice is yours, but Oxfam firmly believes that you deserve to know enough to make informed choices. If you’re going to eat meat, you need to know what goes on behind the scenes—not only how the animals are treated, but how workers are treated in raising and processing our food.
We believe the industry exploits workers by treating them as disposable parts of the production process, but Big Poultry can produce healthy food ethically and profitably. We know that the industry can implement changes that will make it possible to work on the processing line without suffering. Poultry processing is difficult work, but it doesn’t need to be dangerous or undignified. Oxfam is asking that Big Poultry enable hard-working people to live well, support their families, and enjoy the bounty of the industry.
Then, what can consumers do?
Consumers have become increasingly aware of where their food comes from and how it gets to their table. This has happened more recently in the poultry industry, where consumers have begun to speak out about the safety of their food and the treatment of chickens. Oxfam is urging consumers to let poultry companies know that consumers care about how workers are treated.
- Consumers can sign the petition, available at oxfamamerica.org/livesontheline.
- Then they can share Oxfam’s story with their family, friends, and colleagues and urge them to learn more and sign the petition too.
Thanks to the efforts of thousands of people like you, we are making important strides to hold Big Poultry accountable and get them to improve working conditions and compensation for their workers. See below for exciting updates on our campaign.
Welcoming progress for poultry workers in the US
Working in a poultry plant is tough. But it just may be getting better—finally. This past year brought some light to the darkness (and the cold, noise, and wet). for poultry plant workers. We look back at a significant year…
The new agreement for poultry workers is not the end—it’s just the beginning
For years, Oxfam has been working with a broad coalition of organizations to pressure the poultry industry to make changes in the way it treats processing workers.
Gruesome injury prompts government to investigate conditions in a Tyson poultry plant
A “disfiguring” amputation at a Tyson plant in Texas led OSHA to discover the nation’s largest poultry company endangers workers by exposing them unnecessarily to serious hazards.
“Serious violations” in poultry plant put workers at risk
Last week, OSHA released findings from an investigation into a plant in Florida, owned by Pilgrim’s Pride, the second largest poultry company in the country. They found 14 “serious” violations and several less than serious.
Why is Oxfam—an international humanitarian and development organization—talking about poultry workers in the US?
Oxfam’s mission is to support the efforts of people around the world who are working to lift themselves out of poverty. This includes people in our own country who are struggling to stay afloat in an increasingly unequal economy.
Why don't poultry workers just quit? And other frequently asked questions
Poultry workers need you to continue to spread the word about life inside America's poultry plants, so we've compiled answers to some of your most frequently asked questions.
2017 Poverty Guidelines
There are two slightly different versions of the federal poverty measure:
The poverty thresholds are the original version of the federal poverty measure. They are updated each year by the Census Bureau. The thresholds are used mainly for statistical purposes &mdash for instance, preparing estimates of the number of Americans in poverty each year. (In other words, all official poverty population figures are calculated using the poverty thresholds, not the guidelines.) Poverty thresholds since 1973 (and for selected earlier years) and weighted average poverty thresholds since 1959 are available on the Census Bureau&rsquos Web site. For an example of how the Census Bureau applies the thresholds to a family&rsquos income to determine its poverty status, see &ldquoHow the Census Bureau Measures Poverty&rdquo on the Census Bureau&rsquos web site.
The poverty guidelines are the other version of the federal poverty measure. They are issued each year in the Federal Register by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The guidelines are a simplification of the poverty thresholds for use for administrative purposes &mdash for instance, determining financial eligibility for certain federal programs. The Federal Register notice of the 2015 poverty guidelines is available.
The poverty guidelines are sometimes loosely referred to as the &ldquofederal poverty level&rdquo (FPL), but that phrase is ambiguous and should be avoided, especially in situations (e.g., legislative or administrative) where precision is important.
Key differences between poverty thresholds and poverty guidelines are outlined in a table under Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs). See also the discussion of this topic on the Institute for Research on Poverty&rsquos web site.
The following figures are the 2015 HHS poverty guidelines which are scheduled to be published in the Federal Register on January 22, 2015. (Additional information will be posted after the guidelines are published.)
2017 POVERTY GUIDELINES FOR THE 48 CONTIGUOUS STATES AND THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA
Persons in family/household
For families/households with more than 8 persons, add $4,180 for each additional person.
2017 POVERTY GUIDELINES FOR ALASKA
Persons in family/household
For families/households with more than 8 persons, add $5,230 for each additional person.
2017 POVERTY GUIDELINES FOR HAWAII
Persons in family/household
For families/households with more than 8 persons, add $4,810 for each additional person.
The separate poverty guidelines for Alaska and Hawaii reflect Office of Economic Opportunity administrative practice beginning in the 1966-1970 period. Note that the poverty thresholds &mdash the original version of the poverty measure &mdash have never had separate figures for Alaska and Hawaii. The poverty guidelines are not defined for Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, Guam, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, and Palau. In cases in which a Federal program using the poverty guidelines serves any of those jurisdictions, the Federal office which administers the program is responsible for deciding whether to use the contiguous-states-and-D.C. guidelines for those jurisdictions or to follow some other procedure.
The poverty guidelines apply to both aged and non-aged units. The guidelines have never had an aged/non-aged distinction only the Census Bureau (statistical) poverty thresholds have separate figures for aged and non-aged one-person and two-person units.
Programs using the guidelines (or percentage multiples of the guidelines &mdash for instance, 125 percent or 185 percent of the guidelines) in determining eligibility include Head Start, the Supplemental Nutition Assistance Program (SNAP), the National School Lunch Program, the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, and the Children&rsquos Health Insurance Program. Note that in general, cash public assistance programs (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and Supplemental Security Income) do NOT use the poverty guidelines in determining eligibility. The Earned Income Tax Credit program also does NOT use the poverty guidelines to determine eligibility. For a more detailed list of programs that do and don&rsquot use the guidelines, see the Frequently Asked Questions(FAQs).
The poverty guidelines (unlike the poverty thresholds) are designated by the year in which they are issued. For instance, the guidelines issued in January 2017 are designated the 2017 poverty guidelines. However, the 2017 HHS poverty guidelines only reflect price changes through calendar year 2016 accordingly, they are approximately equal to the Census Bureau poverty thresholds for calendar year 2016.
Retail and hospitality
The living wage is calculated annually by the Living Wage Foundation according to the basic cost of living in the UK.
It has received widespread political support, but limited endorsement by employers.
Director of the Living Wage Foundation Rhys Moore, said: “The new figures revealed in this report highlights a critical challenge for those workers on low pay as we enter a period of recovery. It is even more important that the recovery is for all.”
Out of our 347 organisations currently accredited by the Living Wage Foundation, just five are in retail and five in hospitality.
Mr Moore added: “We know the bigger challenges are in retail, hospitality and care where low pay is prevalent.
“We hope to see leadership from large chains like Sainsbury’s, John Lewis and Tesco standing alongside our other responsible employers.”
Despite the low numbers, some hospitality companies are bucking the trend.
The company behind Holiday Inn and Intercontinental in May 2012 became the first hotel chain to back the London Living Wage – raising the earnings of hundreds of staff members to £8.30 an hour for a five year period.
David Brooks: Make more room for faith in the fight against poverty
Every once in a while, the Obama administration will promulgate a policy that is truly demoralizing. A willingness to end the District of Columbia school voucher program was one such case. The decision to force Catholic social service providers to support contraception and other practices that violate their creed is another.
These decisions are demoralizing because they make it harder to conduct a serious anti-poverty policy.
The essential truth about poverty is that we will never fully understand what causes it. There are a million factors that contribute to poverty, and they interact in a zillion ways.
Some of the factors are economic: the shortage of low-skill, entry-level jobs. Some of the factors are historical: the legacy of racism. Some of the factors are familial: the breakdown in early attachments between infants and caregivers and the cognitive problems that often result from that. Some of them are social: the shortage of healthy role models and mentors.
The list of factors that contribute to poverty could go on and on, and the interactions between them are infinite. Therefore, there is no single magic lever to pull to significantly reduce poverty. The only thing to do is change the whole ecosystem.
If poverty is a complex system of negative feedback loops, then you have to create an equally complex and diverse set of positive feedback loops.
You have to flood the zone with as many good programs as you can find and fund and hope that somehow they will interact and reinforce each other community-by-community, neighborhood-by-neighborhood.
The key to this flood-the-zone approach is that you have to allow for maximum possible diversity. Let’s say there is a 14-year-old girl who, for perfectly understandable reasons, wants to experience the love and sense of purpose that go with motherhood, rather than stay in school in the hopes of someday earning a middle-class wage.
You have no idea what factors have caused her to make this decision, and you have no way of knowing what will dissuade her.
But you want her, from morning until night, to be enveloped by a thick ecosystem of positive influences. You want lefty social justice groups, righty evangelical groups, Muslim groups, sports clubs, government social workers, Boys and Girls Clubs and a hundred other diverse institutions.
If you surround her with a different culture and a web of relationships, maybe she will absorb new habits of thought, find a sense of belonging and change her path.
To build this thick ecosystem, you have to include religious institutions and you have to give them broad leeway. Religious faith is quirky and doesn’t always conform to contemporary norms. But faith motivates people to serve. Faith turns lives around. You want to do everything possible to give these faithful servants room and support so they can improve the spiritual, economic and social ecology in poor neighborhoods.
The administration’s policies on school vouchers and religious service providers are demoralizing because they weaken this ecology by reducing its diversity. By ending vouchers, the administration reduced the social intercourse between neighborhoods. By coercing the religious charities, it is teaching the faithful to distrust government, to segregate themselves from bureaucratic overreach, to pull inward.
Members of the Obama administration aren’t forcing religious organizations to violate their creeds because they are secular fundamentalists who place no value on religious liberty. They are doing it because they operate in a technocracy.
Technocrats are in the business of promulgating rules. They seek abstract principles that they can apply in all cases. From their perspective, a rule is fair when it can be imposed uniformly across the nation.
Technocratic organizations take diverse institutions and make them more alike by imposing the same rules. Technocracies do not defer to local knowledge. They dislike individual discretion. They like consistency, codification and uniformity.
Technocratic institutions have an unstated theory of how change happens. It’s the theory President Barack Obama sketched out at the beginning and end of his State of the Union address: Society works best when it is like a military unit – when everybody works together in pursuit of a mission, pulling together as one.
But a realistic anti-poverty program works in the opposite way. It’s not like a military unit. It’s like a rain forest, with a complex array of organisms pursuing diverse missions in diverse ways while intertwining and adapting to each other.
I wish Obama would escape from the technocratic rationalism that sometimes infects his administration. I wish he’d go back to his community-organizer roots. When he was driving around Chicago mobilizing priests and pastors on those cold nights, would he really have compelled them to do things that violated their sacred vows?
I don’t think so. I think if that Barack Obama possessed the power he has today, he’d want to flood the zone with as much rich diversity as possible.