|Michael Snell-Feikema photo|
Turkeys are now the fifth ranking agricultural product produced in Virginia, right behind broilers, cattle, soybeans and milk. They account for some $326,000,000 in receipts annually, of which poultry workers earn only 2%.
Yesterday I attended a community meeting celebrating the hardworking men and women, many of them immigrants, who are employed in processing plants here in the "turkey capitol of the world".
Working long shifts with sharp knives, and in damp and cold conditions, several workers spoke of the high incidence of injuries they have suffered, including cuts, carpel tunnel syndrome and other repetitive motion disorders. They also reported a serious lack of medical treatment and/or compensation for work-related injuries.
The following is from local advocate Michael Snell-Feikema:
"The line is sped up during holiday season, with workers made to process up to 50 turkeys per minute. A Central American woman gets her hand slammed by a 30-pound turkey speeding down the line. Her hand loses feeling; the temperature on the floor is very cold. The poultry company pays for her physical therapy for a time, then tells her she has to assume responsibility for the injury. The company nurse even asks her, “Are you sure you got hit by a turkey?” They end up putting the injured woman on “light duty” (pulling feathers, etc.) that she has to perform with her uninjured hand. She’s transferred to a position involving cutting poultry parts with a pair of scissors held over her head, which results in extreme tendinitis. (Bear in mind, she’s performing the duty with one hand because her other hand is still injured.) She no longer has use of either hand. They send her home for 5 months with zero pay, zero workmen’s comp. She’s back to work now, but her hands are still injured.
"From another worker: After 8 years of employment with a particular company, she dislocates her shoulder trying to complete “500 plates in 20 minutes.” The company nurse advises her to go to a specific doctor. The woman goes, then receives a bill for $2,700. The woman is surprised because she assumed the doctor worked for the poultry company which would pick up the cost. The nurse tells her, “No, you actually went to a personal doctor.” The woman says, “You told me to go to this doctor.” The nurse says, “No, your injury probably didn’t happen at the plant. It happened elsewhere: at home, the shopping mall, etc.” The nurse then asks, “Do you want to continue your job?” The woman says, “Yes.” The nurse says, “Then sign this piece of paper.” The injured woman signs the paper. The nurse asks, “Do you know what you just signed? You just signed an agreement stating you did not get injured on the job.” The company didn’t even give her a copy of the document."
Snell-Feikema adds, "These two personal stories are a just a glimpse into a broader pattern of abuse that is pervasive in the poultry plants across the United States and in the Shenandoah Valley. Many studies have been done by various human rights groups such as Human Rights Watch and the Southern Poverty Law Center. Recently, Oxfam America has launched a national campaign in support of the human rights of poultry workers and published an extraordinary report titled: Lives on the Line: The Human Cost of Cheap Chicken."
Here is a link to a WMRA report on local conditions: http://wmra.org/post/poultry-workers-speak-out-work-conditions
Here are OSHA safety rules governing poultry processing: https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/poultryprocessing/