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Activists target poultry industry

Helping workers group’s objective by Claire Williams | February 14, 2016 at 5:55 a.m.

The Northwest Arkansas Workers' Justice Center has spent the past two years traveling the state, collecting stories and data from poultry workers that point to the sometimes difficult conditions in the poultry industry -- the state's fifth-largest private employer.

Now that their report on poultry worker conditions in Arkansas has been released, Magaly Licolli , executive director of the organization, said she's ready for the Northwest Arkansas Workers' Justice Center to take direct action.

That means the organization will be circulating more petitions, hosting more rallies and organizing vigils to support the state's poultry workers. Licolli said she is making an effort to gather with religious leaders in the community and to make stronger allies in the effort to improve conditions at the multibillion-dollar poultry companies that employ thousands in the state.

"I don't think we're demanding gold or something out of control," she said.

The Northwest Arkansas Workers' Justice Center surveyed 500 poultry workers in the state. According to the report, foreign-born and black and Hispanic workers experience disproportionate employment-law violations compared with U.S.-born or white workers. Almost two-thirds of all workers reported some form of illegal wage theft.

About 91 percent of surveyed workers reported having no earned sick leave, and 62 percent reported to work while sick. Of that 62 percent, 77 percent said they were directly threatened with disciplinary action for taking a day off when sick.

Licolli said her organization is looking to improve conditions in the poultry industry as a whole, but in Arkansas that means focusing efforts on Tyson Foods, which has its is headquarters in Springdale.

"It's the industry as a whole, it's not only Tyson," she said. "Obviously one of the biggest companies in the U.S., what they do will affect others."

More than 20 percent of the company's U.S. employees work in Arkansas, and Tyson employs more than half of all poultry workers in the state, according to the report.

Tyson was the only major poultry company with employees in Arkansas to comment on the report.

The average hourly pay for poultry workers who have been on the job for more than a year is $12 an hour, Tyson said in a statement. Some hourly production workers make more than $16 an hour, while some maintenance jobs pay as much as $23 an hour and some refrigeration jobs earn $26 an hour.

"Our company has met several times with the human rights group Oxfam America and has also reached out to the Northwest Arkansas Workers' Justice Center to talk about what we can do to help our poultry team members succeed," the company said in a statement.

Tyson started a safety program last year that is aimed at decreasing work-related injuries and improving conditions in its plants. The company also has a confidential, toll-free hotline for workers to report concerns.

"We work hard to keep our team safe, but if someone gets hurt, we work equally hard to make sure they get the medical care they need," Tyson said. "We also require workers to report any workplace injury or illness so it can be immediately addressed."

The rate of injuries and illnesses occurring in the poultry sector's slaughter and processing workforce has fallen 81 percent in the past 20 years, according to a 2014 report by the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics.

"We recognize that some jobs in the plant are more labor intensive than others," said Tom Super, spokesman for the National Chicken Council. "That's why, perhaps, more than any other industry, the poultry industry over the last several decades has focused its energies on the prevention of workplace injuries and illnesses."

The workers organization has gathered some support from human-rights and religious groups. The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, an organization that promotes social justice, has helped promote the center's report.

"Some workers reported urinating on themselves because they could not go to the bathroom," said Amber Moulton, a researcher for the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, at a news conference in Springdale about the report last week. "This is a very basic, very base-line recommendation. People need to be granted equitable access to bathroom breaks."

The Rev. Clint Schnekloth of Good Shepard Lutheran Church in Fayetteville said at the same news conference that poultry companies have a responsibility to address the conditions that workers reported to the workers organization.

"Those working at the corporate level are unaware of the privileges they enjoy that others working in the places of production do not," he said. "I believe these companies value their employees and are committed to recognizing the dignity of all workers. Where they struggle is extending these same benefits to all their workers, especially those on the lines."

Information for this article was contributed by Chris Bahn of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

SundayMonday Business on 02/14/2016

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