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Inform Your Activism: Talking about the Struggles of Arkansas Poultry Workers

February 10, 2016

When you sit down to a nice chicken dinner, do you think about how that chicken got to your plate? What about how the poultry workers were treated? The Northwest Arkansas Workers’ Justice Center (NWAWJC), a UUSC partner, recently released Wages and Working Conditions in Arkansas Poultry Plants, an eye-opening report about the human rights violations that poultry workers face every day. Use the key points and background below to inform your conversations and actions to advance justice for these workers — and get ready to talk with your friends, families, and legislators!

Key points

Click on each key point to read more detail.


The poultry industry is a large and growing business in the United States. Arkansas produces 11% of the nation’s broiler chickens. NWAWJC surveyed 500 Arkansas poultry workers about their experiences working in the industry. The findings: a poultry worker’s job is often difficult, dirty, and dangerous. Working conditions frequently result in illness and injury for workers and create an environment in which the risk of meat contamination is high.

Northwest Arkansas, the locus of poultry production, has much larger populations of people who are foreign-born, Hispanic or Latino, and Asian or Pacific Islander than Arkansas as a whole. These demographics are represented in the disparities and discrimination that workers reported on their surveys.

Key points in detail

1. Wages and hours: Workers in Arkansas poultry processing plants often do not earn enough to support their families. On top of low pay, workers report experiencing wage and hour violations including having wages “disappear.”

  • Arkansas poultry workers make, on average, approximately $13.84 per hour ($28,792 per year). Even in a household with two adults making this wage ($57,584 total), this is well below living wage for a family of four ($71,000 is considered a living wage in the nonmetro South).
  • 62% of surveyed workers report experiencing some sort of wage and hour violation. Examples: nonpayment of wages or cost of protective gear deducted from pay.
  • 21% of foreign-born workers reported being paid with payroll cards. These cards can have advantages, as they can be used like debit cards, but there are disadvantages because fees and payments can be difficult to track. 38% of those who are paid via payroll card reported having money “disappear.” In 74% of those cases, the money was never recovered.

2. Benefits: Poultry workers in Arkansas report having limited access to health benefits such as earned sick leave and affordable comprehensive health insurance. In addition, workers report being punished or even fired for being sick and injured on the job.

  • Most poultry workers report having health insurance, but only 22% said they were “always” able to afford medical care they needed. 62% reported that they could only pay “sometimes” or “never.”
  • Only 9% of surveyed workers report that they have earned sick leave. Another 38% reported having unpaid sick leave, often on a points system that discourages workers from taking time off. A full 32% report that they have no sick leave at all.
  • 62% reported that they had gone to work while sick. When asked why, 77% responded that they needed the money and had no earned sick leave. 54% reported that they worked because they were afraid of disciplinary action if they missed work. 44% reported that they had been directly threatened with discipline if they missed work.
  • 22% of surveyed workers reported being fired because they missed work due to sickness.

3. Discrimination and harassment: A recent worker survey reveals widespread experiences of discrimination and harassment. Workers reported discrimination based on race, ethnicity, and gender.

  • Women, in particular, cite gender discrimination in the way bathroom breaks are withheld by male supervisors. Some have urinated on themselves because they were not granted breaks when needed.
  • 51% of surveyed workers report being discriminated against at work.
  • 44% report being verbally or sexually harassed.
  • Of those who reported being harassed, black and Latino workers reported high rates of being harassed by a supervisor or lead (black: 71%; Latino: 63%). White and Asian Pacific Islander workers were more likely to report harassment by a coworker or combination of the two.

4. Lack of mobility: Among surveyed workers, tenure, mobility, and access to raises vary widely based on race and nationality. Foreign-born workers report being stuck in lower wage positions for longer periods of time, with fewer advancement opportunities.

  • Only 22% of surveyed workers reported being offered a promotion to a more comfortable or higher-paid role.
  • Foreign-born workers reported working on average twice as long at their U.S. counterparts (foreign-born: 64 months; U.S.-born: 31 months).
  • Foreign-born and Latino workers reported both the longest average tenure as poultry workers and the lowest rates of being offered promotions (Latino workers: 94% not offered a promotion; foreign-born: 92% not offered a promotion).

5. Health and safety: Health and safety conditions in poultry processing plants can pose a threat to both workers and consumers. Unhygienic environments combined with fast line speeds can result in injury and illness for workers and contamination of meat.

  • 31% of workers reported seeing contamination in the meat. There was a strong correlation between workers who did not have sick leave and those who saw contamination. Workers who come to work sick because they cannot take time off can infect other workers, perpetuate illness, and contaminate meat.
  • Over half of surveyed workers reported that they had had a work-related sickness or illness. But for those with earned sick days, that number was only 49%, while for those with no sick days, it was 71%.
  • 32% reported that they or someone they knew was punished for reporting health and safety or other issues to a supervisor.
  • Workers reported that a lack of proper training was a major cause of work-related injury.
  • Those who reported being injured on the job also reported the fastest line speeds, in some cases almost double the piece/pound per minute rate of those who had not been injured.

6. Recommendations: Policies must be adopted and enforced — by the government and companies — to remedy these problems, and workers should be encouraged to organize.

  • Policymakers should increase enforcement of wage and hour laws, including increasing penalties for violations and increased enforcement resources.
  • Line speeds should be regulated and reduced, to reduce injury and contamination.
  • Paid sick leave should be guaranteed for all workers.
  • Policymakers and companies should work to reduce discrimination and harassment in the workplace, including enforcing antidiscrimination laws and creating strategies to ensure equitable mobility for workers of color and foreign-born workers.
  • Companies and policymakers should ensure equitable access to bathroom breaks to protect worker health and dignity.
  • Workers should be encouraged to organize collectively to work for better conditions.

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