A new report by Oxfam America asserts workers in U.S. poultry processing plants risk high rates of injury, illness, difficult working conditions and unsympathetic bosses. But perhaps the worst offense, the one that is the greatest assault on their dignity as human beings: Lack of access to adequate restroom breaks.
This takes a toll on all workers, but women especially. Routinely, the workers say they are denied requests to use the restroom. Supervisors not only deny or ignore their requests, they mock them for it. They threaten punishment. In some cases, they threaten to fire them. Workers told researchers it was not uncommon for them to wait up to an hour or more after making the request. Even when acquiesced, the supervisors usually set a time frame in which they must return.
Horrifyingly, workers say they are forced to wear diapers that allow them to urinate and defecate where they stand on the assembly line. They reduce the amount of liquids they drink – sometimes to a dangerous degree – so they won’t risk needing to use the restroom at work. They endure pain and discomfort and worse, serious health problems as a result of these violations of basic human rights.
For women, the biological realities of menstruation, pregnancy and higher risk of infections make these unreasonable demands extremely hard.
As the Oxfam researchers put it, the nature of the work is such that it is already exhausting and demanding. But there is no justifiable reason why it must be dehumanizing. The fact is, these companies are set on boosting their profit margins – no matter what the cost to worker health and well-being.
And this is not an isolated issue. A survey conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center at a factory in Alabama revealed that 80 percent of workers reported they aren’t allowed to take bathroom breaks when they need to do so. A similar survey in Minnesota showed 86 percent of workers reported they were denied bathroom breaks. At a company in Mississippi, women reported one supervisor charged them money to use the restroom.
There are a number of legal protections that workers have in these cases, though many are afraid to exercise them.
The Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) has a sanitation standard that is codified in 29 CFR 1910.141(c)(1)(i). The law requires that workers be given access to toilet facilities, with separate rooms for each sex, with minimum number of facilities dictated by the number of employees.
OSHA officials have outright stated the purpose of this statute is to ensure workers have sanitary and available toilets so employees won’t suffer the dangerous health effects that can result when such facilities are not available. There is a long list of potentially adverse consequences of withholding bathroom breaks, but they include urinary tract infections and serious bowel and bladder problems.
The problem is that poultry facilities often do not employ enough “relief workers” (i.e., assistants or floaters) to take a person’s position on the line when they need to use the restroom.
Unfortunately, OSHA is understaffed too, inspecting just 1 percent of all workplaces in the U.S. annually. That means unless it gets a specific report of problems like this, it’s unlikely to change.
If you have been unlawfully denied breaks at work in California, we can help.
Contact the employment attorneys at Nassiri Law Group, practicing in Orange County, Riverside and Los Angeles. Call 714-937-2020.
“I had to wear Pampers”: The cruel reality the people who bring you cheap chicken allegedly endure, May 11, 2016, By Roberto A. Ferdman, The Washington Post
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