Lives on the Line: The Human Cost of Cheap Chicken

Oxfam Research Report, Lives on the Line: The Human Cost of Cheap Chicken. Oxfam America, 26 October 2015. “Chicken is the most popular meat in America , and the poultry industry is booming. Profits are climbing, consumer demand is growing, and executive compensation is increasing rapidly. But one element remains trapped at the bottom: the workers on the poultry processing line. Poultry workers 1) earn low wages of diminishing value, 2) suffer elevated rates of injury and illness, and 3) often experience a climate of fear in the workplace. These problems affect the entire industry, but the top four chicken companies control roughly 60 percent of the domestic market: Tyson Foods, Pilgrim’s, Perdue, and Sanderson Farms. As industry leaders, these companies can and should implement changes that will improve conditions for poultry workers across the country.

The full report explores industry history and trends in consumption, documents the realities and challenges of life working on the line, and offers concrete recommendations to improve conditions.”

From the Case Statement:

As the industry pushes for maximum productivity, it also pushes workers on the line to maximum speed. The upper limit on the line speed has increased from 70 birds per minute in 1979, to 91 in 1999, to 140 today [2015]. Still, the industry continues to seek even faster line speeds–despite well-documented and wide-ranging dangers to the workforce….

These are tough jobs. But the industry does little to make it easier for these workers to endure. In fact, it does not do enough to protect workers, compensate them fairly, or take care of them once they’re injured or disabled. Rather, it simply replaces them with people likely to encounter the same fate.

In the effort to find workers willing to do these jobs, the poultry industry turns to populations that have few other options and are especially vulnerable: minorities, immigrants, and refugees from a variety of countries, even prisoners. Most are afraid to expose and protest the reality of life inside these plants. Those who do speak out are often dismissed with little explanation….


The United States is the largest poultry meat producer in the world. Today’s poultry industry is a modern model of technological innovation, vertical integration, and consolidation. In the past 60 years, the poultry industry has been transformed from thousands of small, scattered farms into an industrial powerhouse dominated by a handful of companies. Large, automated plants operate around the clock to process more than 32 million chickens each weekday (8.5 billion chickens in 2013, totaling 50 billion pounds)….

Workers on the poultry processing line earn near-poverty-level wages. Many work more than 40 hours a week, averaging around $11 per hour. Annual income for most is between $20,000 and $25,000, and wages have not kept pace with inflation. An average full-time poultry worker supporting two children qualifies for Head Start, SNAP (food stamps), and the National School Lunch Program.

In addition, wage theft is rampant: many plants neglect to pay workers for time spent preparing for and then finishing up after work….


Poultry work happens in a harsh environment. The plant is cold, humid, and slippery with grease, blood, and water. The air is full of chemicals from cleaning, processing, and cooking. The line moves rapidly while workers wield sharp tools. When these hazards are not mitigated and minimized, workers are injured in a variety of ways.

Nonetheless, although poultry work is one of the most dangerous occupations in the country, much could be done to reduce the injury rate. Most workers cite the rapid line speed as the major challenge to their health and safety….


Poultry workers make thousands of cutting, pulling, and hanging motions on the line each day (a conservative estimate is 20,000 motions per worker per day, but it can be much higher). In the drive to maximize production, the companies rarely slow or stop the processing line; workers stand in place for hours on end, unable to pause or slow down for even seconds.

Dozens of medical studies have documented that the relentless pace and the thousands of repetitions contribute to an elevated rate of painful and crippling musculoskeletal injures in the workforce. Workers report that the constant repetitive motions cause pain in hands, fingers, arms, shoulders, and backs….


Workers are also at risk of injuries when handling knives, scissors, and saws…. In addition, workers are at risk of skin infections from exposure to chemicals and poultry fluids; asthma and respiratory conditions from ammonia, dust, and chemicals; and mental health stress resulting in depression, and substance and alcohol abuse. Because the wet and humid conditions make the floors extremely slippery, falls are common….


When workers are injured or ill, they say they’re often afraid to speak up; they worry about being disciplined or fired (or even deported if they are undocumented). The message from many supervisors is simple: working through pain is part of the job….

Workers who are compelled to leave–because they are crippled with pain or debilitated by injuries–find themselves without compensation and without the physical ability to find other employment….


Despite myriad medical and community reports about injuries to poultry workers, the industry maintains that injury and illness rates have been dropping in the past 20 years….

The reality is far more complicated. The dramatic drop pictured is largely due to other factors, primarily changes in the reporting system and under-reporting of incidents. In other words, workers are still getting hurt. But those injuries are not getting reported….


Of the roughly 250,000 poultry workers in the US, most are minorities, immigrants, or refugees, and a significant percentage is female. Because the turnover rate is extraordinarily high, the industry needs to find new pools of workers on a continual basis. Companies increasingly turn to what one expert calls ‘a variety of economically desperate and socially isolated populations.’

There is a historical pattern of tapping into disenfranchised populations. In the early stages of industrialization, Southern companies relied on African-Americans. Today, they rely largely on workers from other countries….


Poultry processing plants are generally located in rural areas, where they are the biggest (or only) employer. This situation provides even greater leverage over workers who feel compelled to stay in unsafe jobs for lack of other employment options….

Over the last 30 years or so, the real value of workers’ wages has declined steadily, while executive compensation has soared.