Voices and Choices
A pastoral letter from the
Catholic Bishops of the South

 
 
As we enter the third millennium of our journey to wholeness, justice and peace, we travel together in the Spirit along a road marked by choices and challenges. As pastoral leaders of the Roman Catholic community we would like to focus attention on the predicament of our brothers and sisters whose work exacts an intolerable personal and community cost.
Their situation is outlined for us in Matthew 25, as is our call to those in need, "Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me. . . ." (v. 40)
We are called to recognize the divine presence in each other, particularly in those who are without "voices or choices" in their lives.
 
 
We are called to continuous growth in the awareness of God's presence in our daily lives. Sometimes the focus of this awareness is close at hand, such as our family and friends; other times it is not so obvious, such as those who work to supply the food we place on our table. In this letter we will discuss the plight of those in the poultry industry, people who provide the plentiful chicken that we find on the dinner plate at home or at the local restaurant.
While this letter will focus on the lack of "voices and choices" for many of our brothers and sisters who work in the poultry industry, we do not mean to single out this one productive business as unique. We use the poultry industry as an example of other businesses, in agriculture and manufacturing, which share the same challenges, whether furniture is being made, produce picked, or livestock raised under contract.
This pastoral letter is about awareness, not answers. It is about our willingness to struggle with the questions of living as children of God. It is about our willingness to open our eyes and hearts to God's presence in people we may never meet, but whose lives are as important as ours are in the sight of God. It is about how we go about living the prayer which says, ". . .Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. . ."
The price of poultry processing
Maria Moñtez prays the "Our Father" daily, but she says "Padre Nuestro." She prays in Spanish, the language of her birthplace. Now a senior citizen, she has been in the United States for many years, the last five of them as a worker in the poultry processing industry.
Senora Moñtez is friendly, but shy. When asked about her work, she says several times that she is glad to be employed, that she doesn't mind working hard. Later she mentions her pain and disability. She has numbness in her arms and hands from the motions she repeats hundreds of times during every work shift. The pain often keeps her awake at night and she treats her condition by rubbing her skin with alcohol. She has not seen a doctor because the company insurance has a deductible of several hundred dollars which her wages cannot cover. She has asked to be rotated to other tasks with different motions, but has been told she is too dependable in her job to risk a replacement.
 
 
 
     
 
www.poultry-pastoral.org
 
     
 
"A lot of people are also affected with asthma and pneumonia and eye problems," she says. "That's what I see the most. People have to leave the plant because of illness. People get fired if they get hurt."
 
 
 
 
Beatrice Johnson is a woman in her mid-forties who has worked in poultry processing for more than 21 years. Repetitive motion injuries disabled her, but company doctors told her that her condition was not job-related, though her family doctor disagrees. She hoped for workman's compensation, but was put on sick leave at a fraction of her normal pay instead. Her sick leave is about to run out and when it does she will probably be fired, like other workers she knows. She is still disabled, still in pain, still in need of a way to support herself.
 
 
According to a 1997 study by the Department of Labor, 60 percent of poultry companies surveyed were found in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Over 51 percent of the plants failed to pay workers for time spent on job-related tasks such as clean up; over 30 percent failed to pay for brief breaks during the day, such as restroom use; over 54 percent deducted money from worker paychecks for protective gear for which the company is required to pay. Employees do not have a "voice" or a "choice" in such policies.
The next poultry industry employee we will encounter has a voice and makes choices about his work, not only for himself, but also for others. While he grapples with conflicting priorities and difficult decisions, he has the power to influence corporate policy and to make changes.
John Stephens is a senior manager with a poultry company. He must watch the profitability of the operation, to keep himself and others employed. It is a competitive business and there are a lot of factors to consider. His single biggest problem is employee turnover, he says emphatically. As soon as people can find another job, they do. As in the majority of processing plants, most employees are from minority groups. More and more he must rely on immigrants, many with questionable documentation.
According to surveys conducted by the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW), poultry workers are mostly African American and female, though Latinos are the fastest growing segment of the workforce.
"The poultry industry in the U.S. is not an employment of choice for people," Mr. Stephens says. "The work is very hard physically and repetitious — that's part of the problem." He has future employees bussed in from other
 
   
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areas, oversees company housing that shelters some of them and wonders how he will keep the line functioning with a full complement of employees next week. He knows that training supervisors to treat employees well and training employees to rotate through several jobs to relieve or prevent repetitive motion injuries are keys to the future of the operation. He is working on implementing such improvements. "The higher the quality of supervision, the better the work environment," he says. "The quality of supervision is a key to turnover and absenteeism. We need to improve the way people are dealt with; the way we take care of their needs is most important."
Chicken catchers lose pay
Processing is one of many pieces of the poultry industry picture. Chicken catchers are another group who work a dangerous, repetitive job for low pay and who face irregularities in their employment.
A study of Delmarva chicken catchers shows that average daily compensation has declined since 1985. Additionally, over 60 percent of plants surveyed by the U. S. Department of Labor in 1997 failed to pay overtime to chicken- catching crews for hours worked over 40 per week.
Poultry growers question contracts
Those who raise the poultry often find themselves in unfair situations. The contract they sign with the poultry company is written to leave the major decisions in the hands of the company. The grower must spend large sums of money to build, and later update, the facilities where the birds will be raised. Such investments usually call for a mortgage on the family farm in the case of smaller growers. The antibiotics, feed and other supplies, including the chicks themselves, come from the company. The company weighs the feed and the finished chickens. The company also decides what the grower will be paid per pound of bird, once expenses for supplies are deducted. Unhealthy chicks, illness in the flock, weather problems, waste disposal and runoff problems are all risks for the grower, not the company. Current contracts are often written to specify arbitration as the only mode of redress, omitting the possibility of class action lawsuits which have been successful for some growers in the past.
 
 
Roy and Mary Stein are growers with 16 years experience. They said most grower families must send someone to work at another job to generate adequate income for the family. Often the rate of return promised by the company falls short of reality, particularly once the company begins to demand expensive changes or improvements in equipment as a condition of continuing the contract. If the contract is not renewed the family farm may be foreclosed upon, and selling it, without the promise of a similar contract for a potential buyer, is often impossible — something the Stein's say becomes another opportunity for problems with the poultry company.
"The only thing you've got control of is signing the contract," Roy Stein said. "They can break it any time they want to; you can't, but they can." "This is contract labor. You are not a partner," Mary says. "A partner is supposed to have something to say about your business." The couple says growers are afraid to speak up, because "everything they own is mortgaged."
 
 
 
 
According to the Securities and Exchange Commission, poultry companies gain about 16 percent on their investment, while poultry growers gain about four percent. Delmarva poultry growers surveyed in 1997 echoed the concerns of the Steins; 43 percent said they did not trust their company's feed delivery weights, 41 percent don't trust the figures on their pay statements and 57 percent believe the company will retaliate if they raise concerns.
Immigrants remain silent
Others at a disadvantage in making a living are immigrants, the "strangers among us." Made in the image and likeness of God, newcomers remind us that most Catholics in the United States are descendants of those who arrived here to begin a new life. Different in look, customs and language, newcomers are often discriminated against. It is not a new situation in the journey of many centuries.
"You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." (Dt.10:19)
Such people have faces and futures. One young man sits quietly, his heavily muscled arms folded across his chest. A friend coaxes him to speak, promising that his real name will not be used. Gradually, Julio Lopez relaxes, unfolds his arms and extends a huge, gentle hand. The hand is deformed with scar tissue; its shape distorted. He speaks reluctantly, through a translator, of a poultry-processing injury, which required more than 70 stitches to close.
 
 
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Weeks later, his use of the hand is still impaired. He is told by the medical people available to him that nothing more can be done and that he is not authorized to see a specialist. He has not been compensated for the injury. He is concerned that the disability is permanent, but he will not make a fuss for fear of losing his current job in the processing plant, the job that feeds his family back home. He is desperate to support them, so desperate that he crossed the border into this country illegally. What will happen if he is sent back? Like others who are undocumented, he says it is safer to be silent.
 
 
 
 
While the laws regarding immigration and immigrants must be respected, everything must be done to aid and protect this most vulnerable and exploitable group of brothers and sisters, many of whom are fleeing civil conflicts in Latin America which have included the United States as a political player. Whatever their country of origin, most are without a voice as they attempt to support themselves and their families by whatever means is available, no matter what the conditions. Their understandable reluctance to seek help from government authorities becomes another factor in the circumstances which many such people must face.
Others involved in this industry have challenges as well, such as truck drivers, distribution employees and feed mill workers. It is difficult to obtain statistical information about many of the problems workers in this industry must face, but the stories told by dozens of our brothers and sisters are consistent and disturbing.
Who is my neighbor?
Such stories can be almost overwhelming. Most of us do not live each day with the problems faced by those whose stories we have just heard. These brothers and sisters face many challenges in common, including questions of a living wage and other worker rights, human dignity, and immigration issues. These brothers and sisters, made in God's image and likeness, appear to have no voice and no choice in their employment situation.
 
 
Why are their problems our problems? The Second Vatican Council assures us: "The joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these too are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ." (opening line of The Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes). The 1971 Synod of bishops teaches us in its document "Justice in the World": "Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appear to us as a constitutive dimension of preaching the Gospel. . . of the Church's mission for
 
 
the redemption of the human race and its liberation from every oppressive situation." (#6)
We wonder, as did the young man in Luke's Gospel, "Who is my neighbor?" Jesus answers with the parable of the Good Samaritan, where a cultural enemy helps the brutalized robbery victim. The injured traveler is treated tenderly, by one with whom he should not even speak, and
 
 
provided for until his recovery. Who was the neighbor? The young man answers, "The one who showed him mercy." Jesus said to him, "Go and do likewise." (Lk.10:37)
"Doing likewise" is usually associated with soup kitchens and other important tasks of charity. But the definition of our neighborliness extends not only beyond our family, friends and faith community, but beyond traditional tasks as well, until our entire lives are an opportunity to live the Gospel.
For more than 100 years, the leaders in the Church have been concerned about the ways we all live our faith in our work, about the conditions workers face, and the meaning of work in the light of the Gospel. Work is important because it is an exercise of the divine dignity and divine giftedness of every human being; a vocation. Having "voices and choices" enables that dignity to be recognized and exercised in our "extended" neighborhood. As teachers in the Church, we bishops continue to add our voices to the struggle for worker justice.
Catholic social teaching summarized
On the 100th anniversary of the Encyclical The Condition of Labor (Rerum Novarum), The United States Catholic Conference outlined six basic principles of Catholic social teaching:
1. The life and dignity of the human person.
The human person is the clearest reflection of God among us. Each person possesses a basic dignity that comes from God, not from any human quality or accomplishment,
 
   
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not from race, gender, age or economic status. The test of every institution or policy is whether it enhances or threatens human life and human dignity. We believe that people are more important than things.
2. Human rights and responsibilities.
Our dignity is protected when human rights are respected — the right to life and to those things which make life truly human: religious liberty, decent work, housing, health care, education, and the right to raise and provide for a family with dignity.
3. The call to family and community.
The human person is not only sacred, but also social. We realize our dignity and achieve our rights in relation with others in our family and communities. No community is more central than the family.
4. The dignity and the rights of workers.
Work is more than a way to make a living; it is a vocation, a participation in creation. Workers have basic rights — to decent work, to just wages, to form and join unions, among others. The economy exists for the human person, not the other way around.
5. The option for the poor.
The poor and vulnerable have a special place in Catholic teaching. The Scriptures tell us we will be judged by our response to "the least of these." We need to put the needs of the poor first.
6. Solidarity.
As Pope John Paul II reminds us, we are one human family despite differences of nationality or race; the poor are not a burden, but our sisters and brothers. Loving our neighbor has global dimensions. (A Century of Social Teaching, 1990)
Economic forces prevail
Those dimensions have economics as an essential component; one that can seem removed from our gospel vision of neighborliness. Complicated concepts and unfamiliar terminology may further obscure our vision. "Vertical integration," in which the same company owns and/or controls every step of production from the most basic components, such as feed grain, to the final product, such as boneless, skinless chicken breasts on the grocery store shelves, has become a dominant force in the economy. The ramifications are too numerous to treat here, but according to the National Catholic Rural Life Conference, "factory farming" impacts prices, wages, natural resources, and the future of family farming, placing enormous power in the boardrooms of a few companies.
 
 
The economic forces which shape the work of each person's daily life are intricate and interconnected, extending to matters of environment, use of hormone technology and genetic engineering, foreign policy, global monetary policy and international imbalances of resources, debt and wealth.
Structural change and legal protections are essential tasks for government and business entities. Still, we may not abdicate our concern and responsibility for such matters to the anonymous group. The "group" is made up of individuals. Structural change begins with the conversion of each heart.
As Catholic Christians who are also accountants, nurses, managers, business executives, politicians, teachers, voters, consumers, bankers, bakers, mechanics, secretaries, parents, and clerks, we make decisions every day that affect the lives of other people. We must struggle in holiness with the competing values of the workplace, with the contradictory and complex choices with which we are faced.
Struggle is also present in the Church. Living the Gospel and journeying together is an exercise, in brokenness and community, of graced perseverance. It is easy to miss the "log" in our own eye, when the "speck" in our neighbor's seems so obvious (Mt.7:3). Guided by the Spirit, we, and our companions in community, search for the responses that will meet the challenges we face.
 
 

 
   
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The need for "voices and choices"
The matter of "voices and choices" does not lend itself to simple answers, in the poultry industry or any other enterprise. Yet it has essential implications for human dignity and justice.
During a concert, many instrumental "voices" are heard. It is the complex interplay of each individual's voice in the overall symphony that makes the experience so evocative and transformative. Listening is not an option; it is part of the experience. Each contribution is valued, unique and essential to the composition. Responsibility is shared; gifts are shared.
 
 
In community, Paul tells us in first Cor- inthians, the many parts of the one body are essential and honored. None can be ignored. "If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored all rejoice together with it." 12(26)
 
 
The voices of all those in the poultry industry, workers, supervisors, managers and owners, need to be heard. A hallmark of conversation is that each person involved comes "to the table" willing to change mind and heart based on what is said. This is no illusory opportunity for token talk, when decisions have already been made and nothing can be changed. This is an essential exchange of viewpoints, a sharing of concerns and, ultimately, of financial risks and benefits, of responsibility.
Such viewpoints need to take into account: the doubling of the value of poultry production from 1987 to 1997, according to the USDA; broiler industry operating profits exceeding $1 billion in 1996, according to the National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice; the USDA poultry processing "line speed" limit increasing from 70 birds per minute in 1979 to 91 per minute by 1999. Also worthy of note is the U.S. Department of Labor study that shows real average wages for poultry workers have declined from 1987 to 1997, as well as a USDL 1998 study concluding that poultry is both the lowest paying and largest employing segment of the entire meat industry.
Such extremes need to be addressed. In our pastoral letter "Economic Justice for All", we, the U.S. bishops, spoke of the imbalance of economic power in our own country. "The way power is distributed in a free market economy frequently gives employers greater bargaining power over employees in the negotiation of labor contracts. Such unequal power may press workers into a choice between an inadequate wage and no wage at all." (par. 103)
In 1891, Pope Leo XIII's The Condition of Labor (Rerum Novarum) stated: "As a rule, workman and employer should make free agreements, and in particular should freely agree as to wages; nevertheless. . . if through necessity or fear of a worse evil, the workman accepts harder conditions because an employer or contractor will give him no better, he is a victim of force and injustice." (par. 6)
 
 
 
 
Having a "voice" can lead to having a "choice" about wages, working conditions, job safety, medical care and other benefits. It is often difficult for workers to achieve this sharing of responsibility with owners and managers, which is why, for decades, the Church has supported the right of individuals to associate in groups organized to see that "voices and choices" become a reality.
Poultry industry workers, like those in other similar businesses, are not easy to organize. Because of the high turnover, vulnerable status and isolation of many of the workers, such associations can be difficult to form. Once formed there can be further obstacles caused by the same factors.
One poultry processing plant has had such an association since 1996, and today, years later, there is still no contract to protect the workers. "This struggle has gone on for a long time," said organizer Juan Sanchez. "People are tired, but they want to be organized. It's the only way to get the company's attention when they are abused by supervisors or overburdened with work. They want to protect themselves."
Organizing these workers, who leave as soon as they can get different job, is a challenging situation, one demanding participation, responsibility, education and perseverance on the part of all involved. Both managers and organizers must function, as emphasized in Pope John Paul II's On Human Work (Laborem Exercens), so as to seek "the common good" (20), not only for themselves, but for the sake of the common good of society as a whole.
 
   
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Taking the next step
"Lord when did we see you?" Do we see the image of the divine in the faces of those who work in the poultry industry and other such businesses? As Catholic Christians what are we called to do?
We pray. We read. We discuss. We struggle. Together we prepare to take the next step. "It is up to these Christian communities, with the help of the Holy Spirit, in communion with the bishops, . . and in dialogue with other Christian brethren and all men of goodwill, to discern the options and commitments that are called for . . ." A Call to Action (Octogesima Adveniens, par. 4).
 
 
Of course people of good will can, and do, disagree. This should be expected as part of the struggle of living our faith. God continues to speak in human history; time and change continue. The Church "has the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel." The Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes, #4)
We continue the journey in hope. We continue without fear, because, as we are reminded so many times in Scripture, we are not alone, God is with us. Pope John Paul II spoke of this in an address to the United Nations General Assembly in 1995 (final paragraph of "Freedom Cannot Be Suppressed").
 
 
"We must not be afraid of the future. We must not be afraid of man. It is not an accident that we are here. Each and every human person has been created in the image and likeness of the One who is the origin of all that is. We have within us the capacities for wisdom and virtue. With these gifts, and with the help of God's grace, we can build in the next century and the next millennium a civilization worthy of the human person, a true culture of freedom. We can and must do so! And in doing so, we shall see that the tears of this century have prepared the ground for a new springtime of the human spirit."
At Mass each Sunday we celebrate the life we have lived in God during the previous week, in all its joys and sorrows.
We share our limitations and our common life in the Spirit as the Eucharist is broken and shared. We are sent together into another week, blessed and invited, "Go in peace to love and serve the Lord."
We "love and serve" in our daily lives through encounters with others. How might we be advocates for the needs of our brothers and sisters who lack "voices and choices"? How might we "speak out for those who cannot speak"? (Prv. 31:8)
Let us begin with our own hearts and our own awareness as we journey together into the next millennium. Let us seek to encounter the presence of the divine in every person, and respond accordingly, for "just as you did it to one of the least of these. . . you did it to me."
 
 
 
   
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We, the Catholic Bishops of the South, endorse this pastoral letter.
         
     
 
Reflection and Response for
Voices and Choices

Begin with one step

 
 
A prayerful approach to the challenge of living our faith in our daily lives can occur on many levels. The first could be called the listening level; the second the participation level and the third could be called the transformation level.
How are we listening? To whom do we listen? Whose voices in our community are not heard and why?
•Pray for all those who struggle with issues of "voices and choices" as seen in human dignity and workplace problems. Pray for those who suffer as well as for those who contribute both to problems and to solutions. Pray for our own awareness.
 
 

 
 
•Decide to become aware of workplace issues in the community by keeping up with the news on such matters. Ask for more information when we become aware of an issue.
•Invite speakers on both sides of a local workplace controversy to address the parish or larger community. Get expert assistance for difficult topics.
•Invite a speaker from the diocesan offices of Catholic Charities, Immigration, Hispanic Apostolate, or Peace and Justice, to inform the community about local issues and opportunities to help change structures and policies. Perhaps a newcomer or person with special skills or awareness in such areas is a parishioner who can share their experiences with the parish.
•Educate ourselves and others about how our daily choices, as consumers and stewards, affect people in our area and all over the world.
 
 
 
 
•Cultivate awareness of the dignity, richness and unique gifts of our brothers and sisters across the street and around the world, so as to live as members of God's family.
Which people in our community are denied participation in decision-making? Who has choices?
•Examine our own practices of interaction with others at home, school, market and workplace. How do we live our faith in our dealings with people we see regularly?
•Organize a small group study of Catholic social teaching.
•Examine parish policies on hiring, wages, grievances and termination. Be aware of who has "voices and choices" in policies. Are parish employment practices consistent with our faith?
How can we transform an unjust situation, one that denies "voices and choices"?
 
   
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•Become part of building an alliance between faith groups and all parties affected by industries such as those discussed in this document. Contact the National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice in Chicago at (773) 728-8400, the National Catholic Rural Life Conference in Des Moines, Iowa, at (515) 270-2634.
•Become aware of workplace safety issues, and support government and private protection of workers in their environment. For more information contact the Catholic Labor Network in Port Arthur, TX, (409) 985-8865.
•Uphold the Church teaching on the right of workers to organize, often agreed to in principle but denied in practice. Harassment of, and retaliation against, those considering such associations is unacceptable. Contact the Delmarva Poultry Justice Alliance in Pocomoke City, MD, (877) 460-8423.
•Educate ourselves and others about what legal or structural changes might be needed to address a "living wage" and take steps to support such change. Discern our call to be involved in groups organized to change the way people are compensated for their work, such as Network in Washington, D.C., (202) 547-5556.
•Support just and humane immigration policies that protect the rights and dignity of these vulnerable workers. Get further information from The Center Of Concern in Washington, D.C., (202) 635-2757.
•Recognize the need for health care that is available and affordable for everyone, regardless of the type of work done. Contact the Catholic Health Association in St. Louis, MO, (314) 427-2500.
•Call for recognition of the environmental impact of many agricultural enterprises, in terms of manure, hormone use, pesticides and fertilizers, on land, water and consumer health. Who is responsible for clean up and disposal? For more information contact the Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA in Pittsboro, NC, (919) 542-1396.
 
 
•Vote.
•Include topics of human dignity, justice and workplace issues in announcements, homilies, liturgical petitions, seasonal celebrations and religious education presentations and at other appropriate opportunites.
 
 
•Make a parish commitment, in service or in finances, to help with a local problem or need in the larger community.
•Consider affiliating with a regional organization, such as the Catholic Committee of Appalachia in Webster Springs, WV, (304) 847-7215, or the Catholic Committee of the South in Atlanta, GA, (404) 705-8490, dedicated to regional justice issues.
•Learn more about the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD) and its work in community and economic development in your diocese. Contribute to CCHD efforts financially, or with other resources.
•An updated summary of Catholic Social teaching is available from the USCC at (202) 541-3000.
•Think of one national or international structure that you would like to change. How can you and members of your community participate in the changing of that structure?
Conclusion
Begin with one step, even one that seems small. The journey to wholeness, justice and peace proceeds one step at a time in God's love.
 
 
 
   
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Voices and Choices
Companies, Workers, Products
 
 
Poultry Processing
Tyson Foods, the largest poultry company, produced more than 7.2 billion pounds of chicken in 1999, utilizing 66 processing plants and 7,402 contract poultry growers. Tyson has poultry operations in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia. Source: Tyson web site.
Americans spend $40 billion a year on chicken products produced in 175 poultry processing plants. Source: Harper's Magazine, August, 1999.
Per-capita chicken consumption has risen from 40 pounds in 1970 to 75 pounds today. Source: Harper's Magazine, August, 1999.
In 1998, Tyson earned the most gross profit-per-dollar of sales of the top five poultry companies. Source: Derived from data that companies submitted to the Securities and Exchange Commission.
 
 
 
 
The five largest companies, Tyson Foods, Gold Kist, Perdue Farms, Pilgrim's Pride and ConAgra, control more than half the business. Source: "The plucking of the American chicken farmer" The Baltimore Sun, Feb. 28, 1999.
Information about poultry, industry profitability, growth, and wages
According to the USDA, poultry production doubled in value from 1987 to 1997.
In 1979 the USDA line speed limit was 70 birds per minute. It is now 91 birds per minute. Source: Harper's Magazine, August, 1999.
The average number of chickens slaughtered per hour has increased from 143 in 1986 to 190 in 1995. Source: USDA.
Real average wages for poultry workers have declined from 1987 to 1997, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Source: U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics; real average wages adjusted for by the CPI-U, U.S. city average, all items, 1987=100.
The broiler industry earned more than $1 billion in operating profits in 1996 alone, according to the National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice.
Poultry is the lowest-paying segment of the entire meat industry and, the largest-employing segment of the entire meat industry. Source: Employment and Earnings, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, 1998.
Information on repetitive-motion injuries
Cumulative-trauma disorders among poultry workers are 16 times the national average. Source: Harper's Magazine, August, 1999.
National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice reports that federal government studies in poultry plants have found that 1 percent of workers are afflicted with cumulative trauma disorders such as carpal tunnel syndrome.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, incidence rates for disorders associated with repeated trauma in 1996 indicated nearly five times the rate for such disorders in the poultry industry compared to manufacturing in general. Source, U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics.
 
   
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Information on serious injuries
In Kentucky, the state Occupational Safety and Health program does not become involved automatically, even in the event of worker deaths. Following the deaths of two Tyson workers in July, 1999, state officials explained that the state OSHP does not require companies to report amputations or other injuries, except in rare circumstances. Most companies have to report only mishaps that result in death or hospitalization of three or more workers. Source: Lexington Herald Leader, July 27, 1999.
Health and safety citations involving "substantial probability of death or serious injury" increased more than 150 percent between 1997 and 1998 at Tyson Foods, the largest poultry company. Information from the OSHA Integrated Management Information System.
The top five categories of citations by OSHA, for Poultry Processing and Slaughtering, from Oct. 1998 through Sept. 1999, were for Process Safety Management, Highly Hazardous; Electrical, Wiring Methods, Components and Equipment; Mechanical Power-Transmission Apparatus; Hazard Communication and Respiratory Protection. Source: OSHA web site.
A 30-year-old female poultry-processing worker was apparently electrocuted in front of co-workers while working in a poultry-processing plant in Morton, MS, July 19, 1999. While stating that the incident is "under investigation", the company claims the plant is "absolutely" a safe place to work. Source: The Scott County Times, Forest, MS, July 21, 1999.
Supervisory issues, safety equipment purchases, unpaid time, etc.
Sixty percent of the poultry industry companies surveyed by the Department of Labor were found in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act.
Over 51 percent of the plants failed to pay workers for time spent in job-related preliminary and afterwork tasks, such as clean-up.
Over 30 percent failed to pay for brief breaks taken during the day, such as restroom breaks or while the line is shut down for cleaning or repair.
 
 
 
 
Information on makeup of workforce
Poultry workers are mostly African-American and female, though Latinos are the fastest growing segment of the poultry workforce. Source: recent plant surveys conducted by the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW).
Poultry Catchers
Average daily compensation for chicken catchers has declined since 1985. Source: Study of rate paid per thousand chickens caught by Delmarva Perdue chicken catchers.
Over 60 percent of plants surveyed by the Department of Labor failed to pay overtime to chicken-catching crews for hours worked over 40 per week. Source: Department of Labor survey of October and November, 1997, as published by the National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice.
According to the National Interfaith Committee on Worker Justice, the U.S. Department of Labor announced in June of 1999, that it was filing lawsuits seeking overtime pay on behalf of more than 200 workers on chicken-catching crews in Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina and Texas.
Poultry Growers
The average poultry farmer lives below the poverty line for a family of three. Source: "The plucking of the American chicken farmer", The Baltimore Sun, Feb. 28, 1999; the average poultry farmer can expect to earn $8,830 annually
 
   
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until loans are paid off, typically in 15 years; Marva Farm Credit, 1997. Poultry is a full time job for 65 percent of Delmarva poultry growers.
The USDA's Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration, charged with overseeing the poultry industry's relationship with contract farmers, lacks the manpower and money to investigate allegations of cheating and other unfairness. It has only about seven full-time investigators to cover the nation's 30,000 contract farmers. Source: "Unprotected and alone" The Baltimore Sun, March 2, 1999.
Because civil lawsuits brought by poultry growers against poultry companies have proved successful in addressing some unfair practices, grower contracts now mandate arbitration in the case of disagreements, to prevent class action lawsuits against the company. Source: "Taking a stand, losing the farm," The Baltimore Sun, March 1, 1999.
Poultry growers are commonly told to upgrade or lose their contract, and subsequently, the farm. Source: "Unprotected and alone" The Baltimore Sun, March 2, 1999.
Despite evidence of cheating on the weighing of finished birds for years, ConAgra in Dalton, Ga., went unpunished by USDA's Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration. Source: "Unprotected and alone," The Baltimore Sun, March 2, 1999.
Class action lawsuits in four states uncovered evidence that cheating on the scales used to weigh the finished birds went on for years. Yet law enforcement agencies launched no criminal probes. Other times the birds would be left to sit in the sun on the trucks and dehydrate before being weighed, losing more than 1,800 to 2,000 pounds a truckload or more. Source: "The plucking of the American chicken farmer" The Baltimore Sun, Feb. 28, 1999.
Of 1,344 Delmarva poultry growers surveyed in 1997, 43 percent don't trust their company's feed delivery weights, 41 percent don't trust the figures on their pay statements, and 57 percent believe their company will retaliate if they raise concerns. Source "The plucking of the American chicken farmer" The Baltimore Sun, Feb. 28, 1999.
 
 
 
   
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Prospective poultry growers are given optimistic income projections by the companies, emphasizing the gross pay, not the net. Source: "The plucking of the American chicken farmer" The Baltimore Sun, Feb. 28, 1999.
Poultry companies hold virtually all the cards in the chicken-growing game. Sometimes they don't follow their own rules or the government's. Tactics from interviews and sworn testimony describe: delivery of weak, sickly chicks; shorting of feed; demands for costly new equipment; delay in weighing so birds lose weight; broken scales so weight of birds is too low; manipulation of grower rankings; mandating arbitration so growers can't sue company; prohibition of conversation between growers; refusal of contracts to prospective farm buyers; threats to "leave the area" if growers band together for legislative change. Source: "The plucking of the American chicken farmer" The Baltimore Sun, Feb. 28, 1999.
Nearly 130 poultry growers in Mississippi have taken their plight to the state Legislature, the Attorney General's office and the Department of Agriculture, asking for a state-run grievance board to monitor the industry and interactions between the contract poultry growers and poultry companies, particularly the contracts. Source: The Commercial Dispatch, Columbus, MS, Feb. 10, 2000 and The Clarion-Ledger, Jackson, MS, February 9, 2000.
Poultry companies gain more on investment than poultry growers, about four percent for growers and 16 percent for companies. Source: Securities and Exchange Commission; Poultry Industry Studies; Compustat PCPlus (Tyson Foods, Pilgrim's Pride and ConAgra).
Poultry growers make an initial investment of $247,000 per house and assume all risks of running a poultry farm, including disposal of chicken manure, disposal of dead chickens and financial responsibility for loss of company-owned birds. Source: "The plucking of the American chicken farmer" The Baltimore Sun, Feb. 28, 1999.
Hispanics
Since 1960 Hispanics have accounted for 71 percent of the growth in the U.S. Catholic Church. The Diocese of Charlotte topped the list of dioceses with the largest percentage increase in Hispanic population, followed by Reno-Las Vegas, Atlanta and Raleigh. The information was released March 7, 2000, in a report titled "Hispanic Ministry at the Turn of the New Millennium" by the Hispanic Affairs Committee of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Family Farming/Factory Farming
"The number of family farms has dropped precipitously _ by 300,000 since 1979 — as multinational agribusiness corporations have gained more control over farm production, commodities and markets." Source: "Joining the Struggle for Rural America" by Br. David G. Andrews, National Catholic Rural Life Office.
Environment
After a two-year probe, of the poultry industry in Scott County, a federal grand jury indicted (in January, 2000) five Mississippi chicken processing plants, a poultry waste rendering company and its former president on charges of conspiring to violate the Clean Water Act. The companies are accused of dumping poultry wastewater into a tributary of the Pearl River that feeds the drinking water supply for the city of Jackson. Source: The Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, Tupelo, MS, Feb. 10, 2000.
Union presence
While 73 percent of meat packing and processing plants are unionized, only 30 percent of poultry plants are organized. Source: United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW), 1998.
 
   
   
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We wish to acknowledge the people who helped make this document possible: Susan Stevenot Sullivan, Rev. Tom Massaro, S.J., Rev. Les Schmidt, Sr. Mary Priniski, O.P., Msgr. Ron Richardson, Eugenia Michels, Dr. Humberto Risso, Rev. Juan Molina, Sr. Pat Brown, S.S.M.N., Dr. Marvin Mich, Joanne Frazer, Barney Offerman, Sue Tully, Rev. Mark Lawlor, John Bookser-Feister and many others. We also wish to thank all those who offered suggestions and information for the document, as well as those who shared their stories at hearings and interviews.
 
     
 
This document was researched and facilitated through the Catholic Committee of the South, a network of solidarity.
 
   
 
The names of people interviewed for this document were changed for their safety.
 
   
www.poultry-pastoral.org
 
     

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