Now that the national media has picked up on the grave injustices plaguing poultry industry workers in the United States, there’s one last line of defense for these workers that needs to organize now that worker’s rights organizations and other non-profits have reached the public.
As we previously reported this month, the Northwest Arkansas Workers’ Justice Center produced a report in February detailing extreme labor exploitation and human rights abuses within U.S. poultry plants. While that didn’t receive the national attention it deserved, Oxfam America’s May report detailing a lack of adequate bathroom breaks for poultry workers pushed the issue to the front lines of mainstream media.
Americans consume more chicken than anyone else in the world. According to recent statistics from the National Chicken Council, Americans consumed 106.1 pounds of chicken per person in 2015 and are projected to consume 108.6 pounds by the end of 2016. And unlike red meat, chicken consumption among Americans has steadily increased annually since the 1960s. If there’s anyone that can compete for power and control within the poultry industry, it’s consumers.
Oliver Gottfried is the Senior Advocacy and Collaborations Advisor at Oxfam America, an international confederation of 17 organizations working in approximately 94 countries worldwide to find solutions to poverty and what it considers injustice around the world. While his organization’s report has received the most attention as of late, several other groups have contributed to efforts in raising awareness.
The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union primarily represents workers in the food industry in the U.S. and Canada. While they and other national and local organizations aided by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the National Employment Law Project have raised considerable awareness, Gottfried explained that it’s up to consumers to enact needed change.
“When the food industry has changed in the past in a lot of sectors, it has had a lot to do with consumers,” Gottfried said. “They (consumers) havent acted yet because they simply don’t know and aren’t aware of things yet. Once they do know they will take action.”
And Gottfried is right, consumers have started to take action. He explained that in the weeks following the release of the report, organizers were able to collect more than 150,000 signatures to present to Tyson Foods demanding improved workers conditions. Additionally, “we were able to engage more than 100,000 people on social media,” Gottfried said. But it’s not nearly enough.
Tyson Foods, Pilgrim’s, Purdue and Sanderson Farms together control about 60 percent of the poultry industry and employ more than 100,000 workers. For decades, this billion dollar industry has capitalized on consumer demand and their workers have suffered as a result. If any change is to occur, the culture of the industry itself and its leaders needs a complete overhaul.
“Because you have such consolidation, these large corporations are able to dictate conditions for the rest of the industry,” Gottfried said. Although, consumers are also able to dictate how the industry functions given how their product demand influences the industry’s success. Tyson Foods is the only company thus far to respond to these consumer demands.
The market leader has announced that “third-party auditors are evaluating workplace conditions as part of a new social compliance program” started by the company. While it’s still unclear if the results of these audits will be made public, it’s a step in the right direction. As an industry leader that has some of the best publicly stated policies pertaining to their workers, consumers need to continue to push Tyson to be the best they can be.
“They are a leader and we are calling on them to be a leader in worker conditions and take the next step to make sure that each of their plants is living up to these standards,” Gottfried said. “By doing that, they can really set themselves apart as a leader and I believe there are a number of economic benefits in doing so.”
Asking everyone to stop eating meat and buying into our meat and poultry industries is unrealistic. It won’t work. What consumers can do, though, is limit their consumption of meat. As Gottfried has outlined, more awareness and a willingness from consumers to understand where the things they eat come from can change the industry.
Even if it only means going from eating meat daily to every other day or once a week, consumers can change the industry. And even though industry leaders have pledged and initiated efforts to change, various reports have proven time and again that they cannot be trusted. The path to meaningful change rests on the shoulders of one group.
Parker Asmann is a Chicago based journalist and a 2015 graduate of DePaul University with degrees in Journalism and Spanish, along with a minor in Latin American & Latino Studies. He is currently an Editorial Board Member for a bilingual Chicago based publication, El BeiSMan, where he focuses on issues of social justice and human rights. Parker has lived and studied in Mérida, Yucatán.