Rights Reading

Children and workers in danger

Our weekly roundup of what we’re reading: a few select articles from the front lines of human rights that we don’t want you to miss.

1. “Lessons from Flint’s Water Crisis,” by Sharmila L. Murthy, WBUR Cognoscenti

“Municipal water service is so essential for public health — and for life itself — that it should not be treated as merely another budget line-item. . . . We need to create a financial safety net so that municipalities faced with slash-and-burn budgeting are not forced to compromise the health and welfare of their citizens. We must draw a line in the proverbial sand and not cross it.”

This opinion piece highlights the damage done — to communities, to families, to children — when money is prioritized over human rights. As people throughout the country and the world take a closer look at what is happening in Flint, many are beginning to learn that this is not an isolated occurrence, another vital point made by the author and also shared by Patricia Jones, UUSC’s senior program leader for the human right to water. UUSC has been working with grassroots organizations in Flint and throughout Michigan to address the gross violations of the human right to water that too many communities are dealing with.

2. “Texas Officials Want Controversial Family Detention Centers To Be Labeled As ‘Child Care’ Centers,” by Esther Yu-Hsi Lee, ThinkProgress

“Calling them ‘child-care facilities’ makes people forget the main thing about detention: you’re not allowed to leave. . . . No matter how rosy a picture the government may paint of these facilities, restraining children in a place that they’re not allowed to leave can cause them ‘long-lasting psychological, developmental, and physical harm.’ That doesn’t sound like ‘child care’ to me.”
—Nicholas Marritz, a pro bono attorney with Legal Aid Justice Center

The latest on Texas efforts to reclassify family detention centers as “child care” facilities (um, no, they’re not). As the article details, much to the dismay of advocates for children’s and immigrants’ rights, Texas is putting this up for consideration with the state’s Health and Human Services Commission. What we know — from our work with RAICES, our partner in Texas, and the findings of No Safe Haven Here, our report on the conditions that mothers and children face in immigration detention — is that these facilities are unhealthy and traumatizing to families who have already been traumatized. To designate them as “child care” facilities is dangerously ridiculous.

3. “‪Meet the minors risking their lives to come to America — alone,” by ThinkProgress Video

“I see myself having a great future here. I want to study and I want to be a doctor when I grow up.”
—Joel

When you read the news about refugees from Central America seeking safety in the United States — many of them minors, on their own — you see a lot of numbers and hear a lot of political grandstanding. Some might forget that we’re talking about people. Individuals with hopes and dreams — and more fears than anyone should have to shoulder. This video from ThinkProgress brings it back to that fundamental, and moving, truth.

4. “Wage Theft, Sexual Assault, And No Sick Leave: The Horrible Conditions Facing Poultry Workers,” by Esther Yu-Hsi Lee, ThinkProgress

“It’s not an issue of simple disagreement over a particular wage. . . . This is about dignity and justice for the workers. It’ll take quite systemic change for these things to be in line for full rights and dignity for workers.”
—Amber Moulton, UUSC Researcher

What can we say, ThinkProgress and Esther Yu-Hsi Lee are rocking it this week! It’s awesome to see them focus in on the conditions facing poultry workers in Arkansas after our partner the Northwest Arkansas Workers’ Justice Center released an eye-opening report last week.

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

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! And don’t forget to sign our petition calling on Tyson, the world’s largest chicken producer, to treat workers better.

Key points | Background | Key points in detail

Key points

Click on each key point to read more 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.”
      
  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.
      
  3. Discrimination and harassment: A recent worker survey reveals widespread experiences of discrimination and harassment. Workers reported discrimination based on race, ethnicity, and gender.
      
  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.
      
  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.
      
  6. Recommendations: Policies must be adopted and enforced — by the government and companies — to remedy these problems, and workers should be encouraged to organize.

Background

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.

Take action today by calling on Tyson, the world’s largest chicken producer, to treat workers better!

Rights Reading

Reports edition

Our weekly roundup of what we’re reading: a few select articles from the front lines of human rights that we don’t want you to miss.

1.Wages and Working Conditions in Arkansas Poultry Plants, by the Northwest Arkansas Workers’ Justice Center (NWAWJC)

“This report is one of the most detailed and comprehensive looks at life inside poultry plants in recent years. It reveals serious problems, from unpaid wages to gender and racial discrimination and health and hygiene lapses that harm both workers and consumers. This hard evidence should spur policymakers and poultry companies to action to protect the rights and dignity of the people who put chicken, Americans’ favorite meat, on our tables.”
— Amber Moulton, Researcher, UUSC

Full disclosure, NWAWJC is one of our partners and we supported the creation of this report. That said, this report is a deep and essential look at the challenges that Arkansas poultry workers face every day. In it, you’ll hear from poultry workers about being denied bathroom breaks, having to work sick in dangerous conditions, and more.

2. Families in Fear: The Atlanta Immigration Raid, by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights

“We must uphold our constitutional values as we address this humanitarian crisis. It is time to ensure that immigrant families no longer live in fear.”

This report gives an eye-opening look at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids that began on January 2, 2016, sharing the personal stories of those affected by the raids and critical recommendations for ensuring that the United States lives up to its responsibilities and offers asylum-seeking families safe haven. We know that family detention doesn’t work, and this report makes the effects of the ICE raids devastatingly clear.

Report: Wage Violations, Poor Working Conditions at Arkansas Poultry Plants

poultry-infographic-5
Click to go to the report.

Report: Wage Violations, Poor Working Conditions at Arkansas Poultry Plants

Arkansas poultry workers routinely face wage and hour violations, poor safety conditions, racial and ethnic discrimination, and gender-based harassment at their jobs, according to Wages and Working Conditions in Arkansas Poultry Plants, a new report from UUSC partner the Northwest Arkansas Workers’ Justice Center (NWAWJC), produced with support from UUSC.

Interviews with 500 workers in Arkansas’s poultry plants paint a picture of a job that 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.

Read a summary of the findings and recommendations below. You can also check out a PDF of the full report or read it on Medium.

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Call on Tyson to treat workers better: Tyson is the world’s largest chicken producer and could shift the industry toward treating workers better by reducing line speeds, allowing workers more breaks, and implementing other policies that put workers’ health and safety first. You can also join our activism on Facebook and Twitter:

Summary of Findings

poultry-infographic-4
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Disappearing wages

With an approximate wage of $13.84 per hour ($28,792 per year), workers in Arkansas poultry processing plants often do not earn enough to support their families. Wage and hour violations compound the problem of low pay: 38% of workers who are paid via payroll card reported having money “disappear.” In 74% of those cases, the money was never recovered.

Illness and injury

Poultry workers in Arkansas reported having limited access to health benefits such as earned sick leave and affordable comprehensive health insurance, and many reported being punished or fired for being sick or injured on the job. A stunning 91% of surveyed workers said they have no earned sick leave, and almost two-thirds reported working while sick. Workers also reported that unhygienic environments combined with fast line speeds and a lack of proper training frequently resulted in illness, injury, and contamination.

Widespread discrimination

More than half of surveyed workers said they experienced discrimination, a very troubling statistic for a workforce made up mostly of first- and second-generation immigrants as well as minority workers from the United States. Women, in particular, cited gender discrimination in the way bathroom breaks are withheld by male supervisors. Some had even urinated on themselves because they were not granted breaks when needed.

poultry-infographic-3
Click to share image on Facebook.

Recommendations

  • Policymakers should step up their enforcement of wage and hour laws, including strengthening penalties for violations and bolstering enforcement resources.
  • Line speeds should be regulated and slowed 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 workers’ health and dignity.
  • Workers should be encouraged to organize collectively to pursue better conditions.

Testimonials

Photo from the Field: Supporting Economic Justice

Children of Food Chain Workers Alliance members supporting economic justice at an OUR Walmart wage protest on Black Friday 2015 in Pico Rivera, Calif. (in Los Angeles County). The Food Chain Workers Alliance is a partner that UUSC is working with to bolster rights for food chain workers throughout the United States, most recently in a project to advance the Good Food Purchasing Policy