“We need to reduce the line speeds, not increase them,” Gwen Clements said by phone from Drakesboro, Ky., April 1. Clements, 55, sliced and packed chickens for a year and a half at a Perdue processing plant in Kentucky until she was fired in January after reporting her injuries and seeking workers’ compensation for medical expenses.
“The only time they slow down is when inspectors come from OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] or the USDA,” said Clements. “As soon as they leave, the speed goes back up again.”
The USDA lacks the “regulatory authority and expertise” to address workers’ safety, an agency spokesperson wrote in an email to Safety + Health magazine in response to criticism of the proposed New Line Speed Inspection System. “Our core mission is to protect the food supply; this is the driving force behind our proposal to modernize poultry inspection.”
The USDA proposal comes in response to an executive order issued by President Barack Obama in January 2011 to “modernize” poultry production and inspection regulations. The president called for a new set of rules “permitting faster line speeds” and making “better use of the Agency’s resources” that would “limit the number of online inspectors.” The USDA’s proposed rules foist greater responsibility for food safety onto workers, who would simultaneously be pressed to crank out three chickens per second.
Fired for reporting injuriesWhen she was fired, Clements had just been diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome and missed work due to bronchitis, which she believes was caused by overexposure to plant chemicals.
“The company nurse did everything to discourage me from reporting the injury,” she said. “Many, many had the same complaints about pains in the hands, wrists, shoulders. Some of these injuries can’t be corrected, you have them for the rest of your life. People suffer in silence, because they know they will be fired if they complain.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center interviewed 302 poultry workers in Alabama for its March 2013 report “Unsafe at These Speeds.” Nearly two-thirds reported suffering work-related injuries and illnesses. A similar number said workers were scared or reluctant to report such injuries to the company.
“I worked with women from Asia, Africa, Latin America,” Clements said. “The workforce is 80 percent women and 80 percent immigrant. The turnover was huge, every once in a while they would have contests to try to keep it to less than 45 workers a week. This is a rural area, there aren’t many jobs paying this well. I started at $9.60 an hour and after six months got $11.35. They use this to make us compete with each other in a race to the bottom.”
Clements has testified on the conditions in the plant before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, hoping to put pressure on the government to force the companies to slow down the speed. A coalition of 15 civil and human rights organizations has submitted a petition to OSHA and USDA.
“We petition to lower the speeds without reducing the staffing, both for meat and poultry,” Tom Fritzsche, staff attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center, told the Militant April 1.
Among those protesting the New Line Speed Inspection System are 68 members of Congress, who wrote a letter March 17 urging USDA Secretary Vilsack to withdraw the proposal, citing concerns over “food safety, worker safety, animal welfare.” The letter points out that production speed is already a leading cause of injury in an industry with one of the highest injury rates in the country. Brushing aside USDA claims of protecting food safety, the letter warned that the new system could lead to higher rates of salmonella and campylobacter poisoning.
According to estimates by the United Food and Commercial Workers union, 30 percent of poultry processing is unionized. There is no union at Perdue where Clements worked.
“When I was hired they gave us a full 30 minutes of anti-union propaganda, how union organizers would seek out your kids at school if you don’t sign the union card,” she said. “There is a whole wall in the plant with scare and fear stuff against the union. We need strong unions — and I mean strong.”