Janitors at Farm Fresh Foods say they were forced to breathe bleach fumes and race each other across floors slick with fat and faced retaliation for complaints
Diego and Rogelio said working as third-shift janitors at the Farm Fresh Foods chicken processing plant meant breathing bleach fumes for so long they couldnt sleep afterwards for the headaches. Then there was the chicken itself.
The pair, who asked that their real names be withheld, told the Guardian their story by phone through a translator provided by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which filed a complaint earlier this year on behalf of the men with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (Osha) over the conditions at the Guntersville, Alabama, facility, owned by a local accountant named Eddie Hill.
Osha fined the company $30,000 last week for mistreating its employees and referred their complaints about having to handle raw chicken after cleaning the bathrooms to the US Department of Agriculture. Experts say worker abuse pervades the poultry industry, but the monitoring situation is likely to get worse under Donald Trumps administration.
Trump has picked Charles Herbster, who runs a large multi-level marketing agricultural supply business called Conklin, to run his agriculture advisory committee. Andy Puzder, the Hardees and Carls Jr executive who has campaigned against minimum wage rises, is Trumps nominee for labor secretary. Workplace reforms in the agriculture business seem unlikely to come from regulators under Trump, to put it mildly.
The Farm Fresh Foods workers described retaliation from their supervisors when they complained, unsanitary conditions and being forced to race each other on a floor covered in standing water and chicken fat. And while the particulars may differ across processing plants, the chicken industry is rife with mistreatment.
Because employees at chicken processing plants are often undocumented, theyre less likely to complain about wage theft and illegal restrictions on bathrooms a favorite tactic of processors trying to make their facilities more efficient, according to the SPLC.
An Oxfam America report issued in May called No Relief focused entirely on workers not being allowed to go to the toilet. It includes stories of laborers who said they were forced to wear diapers on the job because the penalties for taking too long in the bathroom were so severe. An SPLC report focused specifically on Alabama noted that nearly 80% of 300 workers surveyed said they had been denied bathroom breaks.
Because the facility did not have adequate drainage to disperse what the SPLCs Isabel Otero described as an enormous amount of Clorox and no ventilation for its fumes, Diego and Rogelios eyes watered, their chests hurt, and they went for a full night and sometimes the rest of the following day without rest from the pain after the weekend cleanings, they said. They also said their supervisors would often wait outside while bleach fumes filled the room.
Minor Sinclair, head of Oxfam America, said he believes the chicken industry puts public opinion and working conditions last and simply focuses on maximizing profit. In some ways its a backward-looking industry, he said. Poultry companies tend not to care about brand identity, and they carefully guard their connections to suppliers who do. In general, they are run by animal science guys, Sinclair said. They think about protein, the price of feed and bird weight.
Labor unionization in the US south lags behind every other area of the country, and poultry producers tend to have very little to do with the public Farm Fresh has no corporate website, only a Facebook page with the phrase Yo Cresta En Esta Familia (I believe in this family) written on a red heart as its cover photo, in English and Spanish Spanish first. There are many photos of smiling Hispanic men and women celebrating birthdays and holidays, more like a church or a community center than a workplace. Recruitment information is posted in English and Spanish. Diego and Rogelio did not disclose their immigration status.
But labor advocates can bring pressure to bear on large and public outfits such as Tyson and Perdue, Oxfams Sinclair said, especially when government procurement is involved, and when those advocates arent hobbled by right-to-work laws like Alabamas, which prevent unions from functioning. The Los Angeles County school district turned down a $20m contract to Tyson, Sinclair said. They didnt renew from Tyson, they went with another company [Canadas Gold Star Foods], Sinclair said. Tyson and Perdue are both cited in Oxfams report on the industrys grim bathroom facilities, though neither company was accused of adulterating its product.
Producers similar in size to Farm Fresh are sometimes asked to help fulfill contracts for the bigger players when the latter need to overproduce. Our hope is that Tyson is going to raise the floor for everybody; right on the eve of our report they raised wages for 34,000 [workers] to $10 an hour, Sinclair said. These are tough jobs its like The Jungle! Its still not fair compensation. But its a hell of a lot better than $8 an hour. Thats about a $100m payroll rise.
When the men were done cleaning the floor of the plant and what they described as inadequate toilet facilities four toilets in total for the hundreds who worked there the complaint states that their supervisor made them race each other across a floor slick with standing water accumulated and mixed with chicken fat to perform their final duty of the midnight-to-7am shift: cutting raw chicken to size.
The workers tried to tell their bosses that they had been hired to clean the floors, not cut the chicken, but were rebuffed. The company would tell us that this was the rule, he said, that we had to deal with the chicken, and that we had no choice but to do this job. Several workers complained, said Rogelio, and their supervisor suspended them.
We always would tell the manager that we should not be handling the chicken after doing this work with the same hands, Diego said.
Their story might never have come to light if the company had not initially refused to pay them their final checks, prompting the initial complaint, the pair told the Guardian. They were paid after the SPLC intervened on their behalf, they said. Wage theft is common in the poultry industry, wrote the authors of another Oxfam America report on chicken processing.
The Guardian attempted to contact several people associated with Farm Fresh Foods, including Mark Welborne, general manager of the facility. Welborne did not return calls for comment.
The Guardian was able to reach Hill himself through the office of his accounting firm, prior to the $30,000 fine. Hill was aware of the complaint. He advised the Guardian to trust the judgment of the regulator: Wait till the Osha investigation comes out, he said. The Osha investigation either will [fine] us or it will clear us.
Pressed on the specific complaints, Hill said: Youre not going to get an answer out of me.
I have a sense of whats right and wrong, Hill said. Asked what that sense told him, he said: Im going to let Osha decide. Hill hung up.
The Guardian called Hill again after the fine had been levied to ask for further comment; he said, I have no comment. The line was disconnected before the Guardian could ask further questions.
- This article was amended on 22 December 2016. A previous version incorrectly quoted Oxfams Minor Sinclair as saying Tyson raised wages for 34 million workers; it was 34,000.
Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/law/2016/dec/22/farm-fresh-foods-alabama-workers-rights-abuse