Oxfam Report: Give Us A Break

Oxfam Poultry Practices Report

I am putting the link to the Oxfam report on practices in the poultry industry in the comment section, as well as a couple of others. It’s a comprehensive report across several states and companies. This isn’t a hatchet job from a single source– it is a serious reminder that many people are treated with inhumanity in some industries. I challenge anyone with an opinion to read the report in the link in the comments. For anyone who has worked a production poultry line, I am certain that you will be nodding your head in agreement while saying, “No Sh*%, Sherlock.” If you are in poultry management, it will piss you off because you either agree that it is inhumane or you will disagree because you will claim the issue doesn’t exist or, at least, isn’t as bad as some would have us believe. If you believe the latter, cash your check and ignore me.

For those working production lines, especially poultry, this report highlights the ongoing substandard practices found in many poultry plants. I’ve written about it many times.

I don’t want to hear blanket objections such as “But it doesn’t happen at my plant.” If it doesn’t, that is great news – and I mean that. In your case, the bad managers or companies are harming other companies in your field.

I’ve witnessed the type of inhumanity described in the Oxfam report. People were denied convenient access to the bathroom or were arbitrarily delayed. Production speed and cost vs. efficiency factors directly affected the staffing levels needed to give safe and necessary bathroom access. Did people suffer and sometimes urinate themselves? Yes. It may be going on right under your noses, even at your plant, where you think it doesn’t happen. In line production jobs, the odds are greater that people are made to feel bad for needing to go to the bathroom. “Hold it or else” can still be heard echoing the plant’s lines, in various languages.

The lower on the socioeconomic rung you or your job falls, the greater the chance that you are faced with the need to go to the bathroom but don’t have permission. If you’ve never worked in such a position, you are lucky. For politeness, I refer to ‘peeing,’ when in reality, who among us has not intestinal cramps so bad we couldn’t stand up, only to run for the bathroom before defecating ourselves? All of us – because we are human. That’s how people end up standing in production spots with urine or worse trailing down their leg. Of course they are ashamed and afraid to talk about it.

Being bilingual gave me a much better insight into how systemic and pervasive the problem was. Most of the poultry industry is minority-staffed and this reality distances the owners and managers from those doing the work, both in economic overlap and language.

I often give companies the benefit of the doubt, despite continuing to hear bathroom horror stories from many people. I still hear stories of people being denied bathroom breaks or being made to wait. The same factors from my past still affect human beings working in the poultry industry. Reports such as this one remind me that companies will all too often lose sight of the humanity of those doing the work.

Again – I am not saying ALL poultry plants operate this way, nor any specific one, local or distant. I am saying that it is still widespread. Further, I knew some great administrators and poultry managers who would say they never condone denying people access to bathrooms. Likewise, I knew that bathroom abuse was happening at their plants, on their watch. They would never believe it, even today. The people they trusted to run their plants felt like making people feel like they were not entitled to bathroom access was saving them money and that it was the right thing to do to perpetuate a system that humiliated or denied people the right to bathroom access; a necessary evil, if you would like to call it that. Regardless of whether the corporate offices or plant management know about unsafe and inhuman practices, the truth is that the entire company culture is their responsibility. These types of practices don’t become common unless cost is stressed at the expense of intangible considerations, including the human impact. If you can’t make a profit without doing things like those described in the report, find another business.

It costs money to operate production lines. Staffing to allow a human being to step off and go urinate, take their medications or do necessary bodily functions of course has an economic impact. We all know that if companies could engineer a way to mechanize all the production elements without people that they would do so. Until they do, however, it is an ethical and moral obligation for the company to honor people’s humanity and not only condone bathroom access, but to acknowledge and embrace it. Avoid the reputation of behaving like monsters and encourage training so that everyone from the production workers to the plant managers must structure their processes in such a way as to ensure that people aren’t standing in a line peeing themselves or being made to feel less-than-human because they need to step off their production spot to relieve themselves. One story of a grandmother peeing herself because she couldn’t get permission to leave her spot is one story too many.

It is such an obvious thing to say that I get angry writing it. If your mom worked at a poultry company and she said that her line supervisor laughed at her for asking (or begging) to go to the bathroom, I am sure that your first impulse might be to remind them via knuckle sandwich that your mom is a human being who needs to go to the bathroom when she asks. Would you be surprised to know that some production keep track of how many bathroom breaks you need – and would reprimand you for violating their arbitrary number? Is once a week too much? Once a day? If you’ve had nothing except jobs which honor your humanity, this will sound like a bad movie script to you.

Imagine all the times you went to the bathroom during the last work day you had. Imagine this: no matter how bad your need, imagine that you worked with hundreds of people and that you had to wait for someone to give your permission and replace you when you needed to go. Now imagine that instead of seeing someone walk up to you and allow you to go, that they called you ‘lazy’ and told you that you had to hold it an hour until the next line break. Or that you had to beg and provide intimate details of why you needed to go. Or decide whether to go without permission and risk losing your job. Now imagine that your mom, wife, or sister had to hear that kind of horrific inhumane response. That scenario is reality for a lot of people.

Kudos to those companies which don’t denigrate people like this. Shame to those which still do. I don’t doubt a single word of the Oxfam report.

When asked about the Oxfam report, many of the CEOs and marketing departments of some of the poultry companies were “outraged,” and “will be checking on the veracity of these reports.” Dear millionaires, can I save you some time? Call me. Of course this craziness is still going on. Not because some report says so. It’s because the people working on the line jobs at your companies say so, day in and day out. The reputation of line positions isn’t accidental. You’ve created it one bad incident at a time.

I put it out of my mind as I’ve moved on to jobs which aren’t monstrous in this regard. I still hear stories, though. And I read reports such as the one I mentioned. I hear it in English and Spanish.

Countless times people have asked me, “How do I find out if these things are true?” It’s strikingly simple, even for management. Find the lower-end employees, the ones working sanitation and production jobs, the ones with mops and knives, the ones speaking Spanish or other languages. Stand around them, listen, and ask questions. Listen again. Then ask them a question like this: “Is it common to be denied access to the bathroom?” All of them will tell you, “Of course.” That’s a problem. It’s a human problem aggravated by a profit motive.

Those doing the work experience the reality and consequences of cost control over humanity more directly than anyone else. If you can get them to talk, listen. And treat them with respect. They are doing jobs that we won’t, all so that we can eat the things we want to.

My food tastes like garbage when I think that people were treated this way in the United State while they were making my food. Raise the price of your product if you need to, if it allows people the right to behave and be treated like human beings worthy of respect for their biology, if not their humanity.

Lives on The Line Link


Lives On The Line Full Report

Humanity aside, if a company perpetuates an environment wherein treating people like this happens, what do you imagine is ‘really’ going on in the production and food safety side of the equation?” – X

PS: I started writing this yesterday, after seeing it on a “Southern Poverty Law Center” comment. Within 60 seconds of me posting this, someone who knows me well had tagged me on social media on another site to draw my attention to it. That’s how much this issue bothers me.


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