The Southern Poverty Law Center and Alabama Appleseed interviewed 302 workers currently or previously employed in the state’s poultry industry. We interviewed workers who resided in more than 20 cities and towns across North and South Alabama.
Survey participation was voluntary. No material incentive was offered to participants. No participants were pre-screened for their point of view.
The workers were employed in 20 poultry plants owned by eight different companies. Chicken catchers employed by subcontractors affiliated with several of these companies were also interviewed. Most of the workers identified by name in this report appear under pseudonyms to protect them from possible retaliation.
We interviewed a diverse sample of workers: 54 percent were Latino, 37 percent were African American and 9 percent were white. Our sample was 56 percent male and 44 percent female.
At least 10 percent of the workers surveyed speak an indigenous Latin American language. We found that 53 percent of survey participants speak at least some Spanish. Forty-two percent speak English as their primary language. Among the immigrant workers participating in the survey, 64 percent had lived in the United States for 10 years or less.
We conducted interviews lasting 45 minutes, on average, with workers whose experience covers all aspects of the poultry industry. Fifteen current or former supervisors participated in our interviews. We restricted our sample to include only workers with more than one month at a job and those who had held a job in the industry within the last five years.
Participants were asked approximately 70 questions about safety practices and equipment in the workplace as well as their experience with line speed, workplace safety and rights enforcement. We also asked workers about their experience with injuries and employer response to injuries. We asked about employment discrimination and other working conditions, including wages and work hours, bathroom and rest breaks, and access to medical care.
The survey found that 37 percent of participants had worked in two or more poultry plants – a reflection of the heavy turnover in the industry and the lack of other job opportunities in many poultry towns. Since we often declined interviews with workers who had worked in poultry jobs for short periods of time, this survey likely reflects a higher level of worker experience and longevity than is typical for the industry. The data in the table on page 50 is intended only to provide a picture of the experience level of the workers providing information for this report.
Study Participants’ Experience in Poultry Jobs
Years of Experience
Among all 302 Interview Participants
Among the 253 Interview Participants Currently Employed in Poultry
1 year or less
1 to 3 years
3 to 5 years
5 to 10 years
Over 10 years
Interviews were conducted primarily in individuals’ homes, though some were conducted in church halls. A handful of interviews were completed by telephone. Participants were not interviewed at their worksites – a step taken to ensure workers felt they could speak openly about their experiences.
While the goal was to obtain a response to all of the survey’s questions, workers could decline to answer any question. In some surveys, time and the demands of the worker’s life – such as the need to attend to a family member or to leave for work – left a survey unfinished.
In such cases, interviewers attempted to complete the survey questions by telephone or at a later date. However, this was not always possible. This “item non-response” is typical in large field surveys. Where data from the survey is reported, percentages based on the total number of responses to the particular question are used, and the number of responses is clarified when necessary.
See 29 U.S.C. § 667; Worrall, supra note 50; OSHA, “Frequently Asked Questions about State Occupational Safety and Health Plans,” available at http://www.osha.gov/dcsp/osp/faq.html#oshaprogram.
The need for specific, enforceable line speed and other ergonomic standards is apparent from, among other sources, the lack of OSHA citations for violations of the general duty to provide a safe workplace. OSHA is more likely to enforce specific standards addressing particular industry problems than its general duty clause, which could hypothetically require safe line speeds and other ergonomically sound practices but is rarely enforced in that way. For example, in the last five years, OSHA has issued only two general duty citations to Alabama poultry plants, neither of them for line speed or ergonomic hazards. See data obtainable from OSHA, Statistics & Data, supra note 14.
Some plants primarily prepare broiler chickens for sale whole, while others debone the chicken carcasses to sell wing, thigh and breast meat cut off of the carcass, and still others do other types of processing to produce chicken tenders, nuggets or patties, sometimes breading the meat in the plant. Interviews included workers from a variety of job stations in different types of plants. Also included were chicken catchers, who do not work inside a plant but travel from henhouse to henhouse to load chickens onto trucks for transportation to slaughter and processing plants. There are a number of other types of workers employed in other roles in the industry, such as those working full time at henhouses, but our interviews were conducted almost exclusively with people employed in slaughter and processing plants or as chicken catchers.