UPDATE -- 10:30 a.m. - 4/25/2014
Wayne Farms has issued a statement in response to Thursday's filed complaint. The Southern Poverty Law Center filed the complaint on behalf of nine current and former employees.
“Wayne Farms takes any situation or allegation regarding our employees, our customers and our communities where we work very seriously. We have just been informed of the letter and have not had the opportunity to research and analyze it to determine if there are any merits to the claims. It would be premature and inappropriate for us to comment on a matter that is still in the earliest stages of review and may or may not culminate in a formal investigation."
MONTGOMERY, Ala. –Workers at a Wayne Farms poultry processing plant in Alabama have been forced to endure unsafe and abusive conditions or lose their jobs – including a worker expected to work after suffering a heart attack at the plant, according to a federal safety complaint filed today by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC).
The complaint filed with the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) on behalf of nine former or current workers charges that workers at the Enterprise plant are subjected to dangerously fast work speeds that cause disabling injuries, are prevented from getting medical treatment and even fired for reporting injuries or taking time off to see a doctor. It also describes how workers are required to pay the company for some of their protective equipment and are denied reasonable bathroom access.
“When workers get hurt in poultry plants, many companies try to just throw them away,” said Tom Fritzsche, SPLC staff attorney. “Employers assume workers can’t stand up for themselves. We are proud to represent a group of brave workers who want to stop these dangerous conditions from harming even more people.”
Supervisors threatened to fire Beatriz Navedo when she reported several injuries she suffered on the job – including a heart attack she had while working on the deboning line. Navedo said the plant refused to call for emergency help. Instead, the plant nurse just gave her an aspirin and expected Navedo to go back to work.
Navedo’s daughter left her shift early to take her mother to the hospital. Both women were punished by having points added to their employee files. If they accrue too many of these points, they can be fired.
“We were promised a dream, but what we really got was a nightmare,” Navedo said. “I felt like a slave. I was yelled at and told to keep up or I would get fired and have to go back to Puerto Rico. I have to speak out because the way the plant supervisors treated us amounted to abuse and exploitation.”
Cristoffel Gonzalez was recruited by Employer Solutions Staffing Group (formerly East Coast Labor Solutions) while living in Puerto Rico. After arriving at the Alabama plant, he knew that he had been deceived by the recruiter and Wayne Farms. But Gonzalez had come a long way for a job he needed to support his family. After working at the plant for about eight months, he developed health problems, including pain in his hands and fingers due to the relentless processing line speeds.
“I have pain all the time and I can’t do things I used to do,” Gonzalez said. “All I want is justice in the plants. The workers should be treated as employees – not slaves.”
OSHA is charged with ensuring that employers protect worker safety and health across the United States. OSHA, which is badly underfunded, is often the only agency that can ensure employers fulfill their duties.
Alabama is the nation’s third-largest producer of poultry, but it comes at a high price for workers. Last year, the SPLC issued Unsafe at These Speeds: Alabama’s Poultry Industry and its Disposable Workers, a report that describes how Alabama poultry workers often suffer significant injuries and illnesses as they are forced to keep up with the punishing speed of processing lines.
Based on more than 300 interviews, the report found that the low-income workers – U.S. citizens and immigrants – are typically forced to endure dangerous conditions and silenced by threats of deportation and firing. Nearly three out of four Alabama poultry workers interviewed described suffering a significant work-related injury or illness, such as debilitating pain in their hands, respiratory problems, cuts, gnarled fingers and chemical burns. The report also shows that workers in the poultry industry suffer extraordinary rates of repetitive motion injuries which are directly linked to the punishing work speeds employees have to meet.
The SPLC has fought to block a rule proposed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that will increase evisceration line speeds from a maximum of 140 birds per minute to 175, despite ample evidence that work speed is a primary contributor to worker injuries. It has urged OSHA to address the unsafe working conditions in poultry plants by taking steps that include protecting whistleblowers and slowing the hazardous work speeds prevalent in the poultry and meat industries.
“The USDA is currently allowing plants to operate at dangerous speeds and even plans to let them increase production,” Fritzsche said. “The poultry industry supports this line speed rule change despite the risks to its workforce. It is time the industry and the Obama administration stop putting profits before people.”
The complaint and additional information can be viewed at http://sp.lc/1fu8F3m.