WASHINGTON – A workers’ rights advocacy group, accusing the poultry industry of providing poor wages and unsafe working conditions, Thursday unveiled a proposed code of ethics for poultry producers.
“It is a disgrace that workers in such a prosperous industry face daily hazards that ought to be eliminated,” said Kimberly Bobo, executive director of the Chicago-based National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice.
The ethics code calls for the establishment of safe processing line speeds, payment of “living” wages, prevention of dangerous plant conditions, assisting of immigrant workers with their transition into new communities and negotiation of contracts with poultry growers to allow a “fair” return on their investment.
The code of ethics was immediately attacked by the industry.
“Clearly they have adopted the agenda of the labor unions that are seeking to organize the poultry industry,” the National Broiler Council said in a prepared statement. “Broiler companies meet their responsibilities to their workers in a responsible manner and will continue to do so.”
Poultry plant workers joined the advocacy group at the news conference releasing the proposed ethics code.
“It is unbelievable to us that they are allowed to treat us the way they do,” said Carlos Matheu, an immigrant from Guatemala who works for Case Farms in North Carolina.
Matheu said plant supervisors frequently deny workers restroom breaks. He also said plants do not provide necessities such as latex gloves and hairnets, so that workers are forced to buy them themselves.
Case Farms declined to comment.
Dick Auletta, a spokesman for Salisbury-based Perdue Farms, rejected the criticisms. “We have been identified time and time again” by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration as having clean and safe workplace conditions, Auletta said.
Another section of the ethics proposal dealt with allowing poultry workers to organize into unions. Two of the largest producers, Perdue and Arkansas-based Tyson, do not have unionized plants, Bobo said.
Workers who try to organize unions are often harassed and face losing their jobs, Matheu said.
“The danger is always present” that he will be fired for his outspoken advocacy of workers’ rights, Matheu said.
The proposed ethics code also seeks to change how poultry producers deal with contract growers, who raise the chickens from when they are young to slaughtering weight.
As many as 80 percent of contract growers live below the poverty line because of low prices paid by producers like Tyson and Perdue, said Carole Morison, a grower in Pocomoke City, Md., south of Salisbury.
“It’s a sad day when a farmer can’t afford the food they produce,” she said.
Young chicks cost about 20 cents each to purchase, Morison said, but growers average only 16 cents for each five-pound chicken they sell to the producers.