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Report takes processors to task, but Sanderson Farms denies worker abuse

By JACK WEATHERLY 

Four major poultry processing companies don’t give line workers time for restroom breaks – forcing some to wear diapers if they have to wait too long or are denied a break, according to a report from Oxfam America.

Those companies – Laurel-based Sanderson Farms, Tyson Foods, Perdue Farms and Pilgrim’s Pride – force their workers to endure those conditions in order to keep costs down, Oxfam said.

The nonprofit organization, which launched a campaign in October to improve conditions for the workers, said that it conducted dozens of interviews with current and former poultry workers, advocates and medical experts to put together the report issued last week: “No Relief – Denial of Bathroom Breaks in the Poultry Industry.”

Only Tyson and Perdue responded to the findings, according to Oxfam. Those responses are included in the report.

A woman named Erma, possibly a pseudonym, who had worked at a Sanderson plant in Mississippi, said that “women have to tell male supervisors why they have to go to the bathroom and only have a few minutes to go and return. The supervisors are not considering the time it takes to walk to the restroom, remove your gear, put your gear back on and return to the line in those few minutes.”

Mike Cockrell, treasurer and chief financial officer for Sanderson, the third-largest chicken processor in the country, issued a release on Monday denying the claims of the report.

“Oxfam’s allegations continue to paint our industry with a broad brush by describing conditions that would, if they existed, be repugnant and contrary to our core principles,” Cockrell said.

“These allegations, based on weak methodology and only a handful of mostly anonymous claims, are less than convincing.”

Cockrell said Sanderson Farms officials “met with Oxfam representatives in February regarding alleged concerns similar to those described in its recent report and to discuss a proposal made by Oxfam, (which was) rejected by our shareholders.

“The company does not deny any person the use of restroom breaks,” he wrote, citing adherence to federal standards. An internal investigation into Oxfam’s claims did not verify any complaints of lack of access to restroom facilities, Cockrell said.

Cockrell extolled the company’s progressive benefits plans and said that more than half of the company’s plant supervisors are promoted from line positions.

However, Oxfam hardly paints a progressive picture of the four biggest processors, which control 60 percent of the market.

In some cases, according to the report, workers are denied breaks or are not given enough time.

“The situation strikes women particularly hard,” the report says. “They face biological realities such a menstruation, pregnancy and higher vulnerability to to infections; and they struggle to maintain their dignity and privacy when requesting breaks.”

Tyson Foods, which is based in Rogers, Arkansas, is the only one of the four companies that has a published policy on restroom breaks, Oxfam says. Tyson has three processing plants in Mississippi.

Tyson’s “Team Member Bill of Rights” allows for “reasonable time for necessary bathroom breaks.”

But the investigation “points to the reality that those policies are not being followed at the plant level.”

Tyson responded that “our production supervisors are instructed to allow Team Members to leave the production line if they need to use the restroom. Not permitting them to do so is simply not tolerated.”

Perdue Farms, based in Salisbury, Maryland, responded that “it does not appear that these associates have taken advantage of Perdue’s Open Door Policy,” which includes a toll-free hotline that allows anonymous calls, the company said.

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