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Poultry Workers Fight for Their Rights


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Magaly LicolliEvery year, the average U.S. consumer polishes off about 100 pounds of chicken—the highest rate of any large country, and twice the level we consumed as recently as 1985. As our love affair with wings and nuggets continues to take flight, the workers behind this bounty remain stuck in a cycle of rock-bottom wages and staggering injury rates. In this episode of Unconfined, Tom talks to Magaly Licolli, co-founder of the Arkansas-based worker center Venceremos, about the creative ways workers are fighting to improve their lives in the home state of meat behemoth Tyson, which holds a 25 percent share of the U.S. chicken market. 




Poultry Workers Fight Back 


By Tom Philpott                                                                                                                                                              Subscribe to Host Notes

Back in 2019, Human Rights Watch (HRW)—which normally focuses on abuses by despotic governments —turned its attention to U.S. meatpacking plants. The resulting  report found that little had changed since 2005, when HRW issued a scathing assessment of what workers endure to provide the bountiful supply of meat Americans enjoy. The 2019 update concluded that government regulators had in the years since stood idly by amid "alarmingly high rates of serious injury and chronic illness among workers," allowing the industry's dominant companies to "obscure the reality of workplace hazards."  

Within months of its publication, in early 2020, the coronavirus pandemic emerged. The lack of safety oversight documented by HRW proved devastating for the 330,000 people who cut and package our steaks, chops, and chicken wings. On Oct. 27, 2021, a report from the US House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis found that in plants run by the five biggest US meatpacking firms—JBS, Tyson, Smithfield, Cargill, and National Beef Packing Company (a subsidiary of Brazilian giant Marfig)—at least 59,000 workers tested positive for the virus during the first year of the pandemic, and at least 269 died. 

At several individual plants run by these multinational conglomerates, upward of 44 percent of the workforce tested positive in that period. The Subcommittee report’s conclusion will surprise no one who has read the HRW assessments: "instead of addressing the clear indications that workers were contracting the coronavirus at alarming rates due to conditions in meatpacking facilities, meatpacking companies prioritized profits and production over worker safety, continuing to employ practices that led to crowded facilities in which the virus spread easily." 

The outbreaks spilled out into surrounding communities as meatpacking plants emerged as prime vectors for spreading the virus into rural America during the first six months of the pandemic. A US Department of Agriculture report found that in rural counties heavily reliant on the the industry for jobs, total per-capita Covid cases in April and May of 2020 were seven to 10 times higher than peer counties without a meatpacking presence—and remained at "significantly higher" levels through most of the year.   

How did the workers behind the American meat habit—and their surrounding communities— get such a raw deal? In the next three episodes of Unconfined podcast, we dig into that question. The series opens with an interview with Magaly Licolli, co-founder and director of Venceremos, an worker-led organization that advocates for the human rights of poultry workers in Arkansas, home state of meat giant Tyson.  

Magaly was a major source for my April 14, 2020, Mother Jones article, in which I tried to get a grip on what was going on in meatpacking plants during the pandemic's chaotic first phase. Magaly put me in touch with an Arkansas poultry worker who explained she and her peers faced before the onset of Covid. An immigrant from Mexico then earning an hourly wage of less than $14, she described perpetually aching muscles and tingling hands from repetitive cutting motions shift after shift; and the constant, often overwhelming smell of caustic chemicals like peracetic acid, used to sterilize chicken parts at various points as they move down the line. When the smell is particularly strong, “it’s awful—it makes your throat and chest hurt and gives you headaches,” she told me. 

The pandemic added extreme stress to this mix, she said: spotty-at-best access to masks; fear of bringing a dangerous pathogen home to her family; and the underlying imperative to keep working through it all to pay rent and buy food (undocumented workers were excluded from most Covid-related government assistance). At a time when much remained unknown about the disease, she and her colleagues assumed that they'd all eventually be infected, she said.

Company officials, for their part, insisted they were doing all they could to protect workers. "Our top priority is the health and safety of our team members," an executive for Tyson, a major player in the U.S. beef, chicken, and poultry markets, declared in a May 11, 2020, press release. As it turned out, the worker's assessment of the situation proved more accurate than the Tyson executive. 

In our interview, Magaly delivers a grim assessment of whether all of the horrific publicity generated by the pandemic has so far led to real change in working conditions on the slaughterhouse floor. And—more hopefully—she delves into how Arkansas workers are organizing to make their voices heard and attain the safe workplace that is their human right (a topic I covered in a May 2022 Mother Jones piece). Tune in! And please like, comment, and share, wherever you get your podcasts. 

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In Host Notes, the voices behind Unconfined podcast deliver additional context to supplement our interviews. Their views do not necessarily reflect those of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future or the Johns Hopkins University.