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South's poultry plants thrive, feeding on workers' need N.C. fire highlights 'terrible conditions'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

HAMLET, N.C. -- The chicken kept coming. Bag after bag, hour after hour, day after day, the nuggets of white meat rode an insistent conveyor to Loretta Goodwin's weighing station.

As she snatched the next bag from the belt, she would eye the scale for the last bag and then pack it into a box.

Reach, weigh and pack. Six ounces a bag, 45 bags a box. Hundreds of boxes a day.

"Light bags!" she would holler at the women up the packing line if the arrivals were underweight. It never did much good. It was numbing work, Ms. Goodwin said. The mind slipped into a rut of counting. Her right arm ached from the ceaseless repetition: "It feels like fingers are pinching my flesh."

At week's end, she took home $179 from the Imperial Foods chicken plant in Hamlet. She was grateful for that. A single mother with a teen-age son, she was at least scratching out a living in a place where the scratching was hard.

For Ms. Goodwin and for many thousands like her, the chicken processing plants growing rapidly in the South offer grinding labor, degrading conditions, poverty wages -- and their only chance for work.

"You can't find much else better around here," said Ms. Goodwin, 43.

Tuesday revealed another burden of the job: danger. A fire at a trough of scalding cooking oil turned the air at the Imperial Food Products plant into a hot poison of smoke. Ms. Goodwin fled with dozens of others to a side door and found it locked.

In the terrible crush of bodies at the door, Ms. Goodwin managed to pull herself up from the pile of arms and legs. Frantic rescuers outside finally broke the lock, and she spilled, coughing, onto the ground.

The fire that killed 25 and left 56 injured also flushed into the open some of the harsher truths about the chicken processing plants, the latest industry of toil to reign in the South.

Critics of the industry have been frustrated at scant attention paid complaints of unsafe plants, worker abuse and diseased products.

"Poultry processing is the new plantation of the South," said Robert Hall, research director for the Institute for Southern Studies in Durham. "The mentality is the same. The value put on people is just as shocking."

The critics point to an industry of 150,000 workers where injuries are nearly three times the national average, where union protections are few, and where an employee with a family can work full time and still be under the poverty line.

But others see poultry plants offering employment in poor areas that need it, to workers often unqualified for other jobs.

The industry has grown as Americans gobble up more chicken. Since 1980, per-capita chicken consumption has increased 50 percent, to nearly that of beef. Where chickens once were mostly sold whole in supermarkets, more than half are now processed for sale as individual pieces or as prepared foods such as nuggets and fillets.

That processing has spawned about 250 factories in the "Broiler Belt" that arcs from the Eastern Shore of Maryland to the Texas Panhandle. The plants are often in small towns. Chicken growers and processors have made poultry the South's largest agricultural business: bigger than tobacco, cotton or peanuts.

Typically, those plants are filled by Hispanic or black women, who earn a dollar or two an hour more than the $4.25 minimum wage. They are often unskilled, uneducated and unable to get a better job. Many are single mothers.

"They put these plants in rural areas, where people want jobs and will tolerate terrible conditions because they have so few options," said Mr. Hall. "They pay well enough to hold people and create an atmosphere of fear. They let people know if they speak out, they will lose their jobs."

In Hamlet, the solemn march of funerals now being held has prompted workers to speak out. "God brought me out of there alive," said Ms. Goodwin. "It doesn't matter what I say now."

The workers at the Imperial Foods plant describe demeaning conditions with few benefits and no job security. They were routinely cursed by bosses, the employees say. They were allowed only one toilet break from the processing line. A single day off required a doctor's permission. Any infraction was noted as an "occurrence," and five occurrences would get a worker fired.

"The supervisors just treat you like you're nothing, and all they want you to do is get their chicken out," said Brenda MacDougald, 36, who had been at the plant two years.

"They treated people like dogs," said a bitter Alfonso Anderson. Peggy, his wife of 27 years, died in the fire. She had worked there 11 years, despite her complaints.

"Around here, you have to take some stuff and swallow it to keep a job," he said, fighting back tears.

The management of Imperial Foods has declined to speak to reporters since shortly after the fire.

Others say this plant was typical.

"The conditions in this plant are the same as in a lot of other plants," said Tony Muncus, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers local in Durham.

The poultry industry is defensive about criticisms of its high occupational injury rate -- 22 per 100 workers a year, compared with a national workplace average of eight per 100 -- and of increasing salmonella contamination. But Bill Roenigk, an official the National Broiler Council in Washington, said that worker safety "is an area where we need to do more."

Wages, he said, are set "by supply and demand. It's a competitive industry."

Complaints of sweatshop conditions seem incongruous to the pastoral setting for the industry. Here on the edge of the North Carolina Piedmont, the mist from night's cool breath retreats to unveil a gentle, rural landscape. Tucked in among the pines and beside the tobacco fields are low, rectangular industrial buildings.

It is the factories, not the fields, that now propel North Carolina's economy. Nearly one in four workers is in manufacturing plants, a higher percentage than any other state. Even king tobacco has surrendered the throne; poultry plants surpassed tobacco as the state's leading agricultural moneymaker in 1987.

North Carolina has openly touted low wages and a friendly business climate to attract those industries. That has meant hostility to unions and a minimum of government controls, say critics of the approach.

The Hamlet plant apparently had not been inspected in its 11 years in operation. There were no fire extinguishers, no sprinkler system, no safety exit doors, investigators say.

The fire revealed that North Carolina has only 14 health inspectors and 27 safety inspectors. The force is "grossly inadequate" and ranks lowest in the nation in proportion to the number of inspectors recommended under federal guidelines, said Mark Schulz, director of the non-profit North Carolina Occupational Safety and Health Project.

"With that amount of inspectors, this accident was just waiting to happen," he said.

It was easy to overlook the Imperial Foods plant, a small, weathered, turn-of-the-century brick plant tucked along a rail line. With only 200 workers, it was barely one-fourth the size of the large Perdue plant in nearby Rockingham.

The owners apparently preferred to be inconspicuous. Strangers would find no sign on the building to say what it was. Few in the town had ever been inside unless they worked there.

But it was a welcome economic asset. Hamlet is a small town struggling not to fade away. Once a bustling railroad hub for major Seaboard passenger lines, Hamlet's downtown is now a sad reminder of the past, its storefronts giving way to peeling paint and cheap discount stores.

Spreading outward from downtown is the mix of sagging shacks and prim, brick ranchers that coexist intimately in the South. Jobs are needed.

"People wear work boots here," said Joe Jernigan, a city councilman and utility worker. "We don't have many white collars."

The big textile plants -- L'eggs hosiery, Union underwear, Burlington Industries -- hold jobs for those who drive out of town. But for others, the little Imperial Foods plant within the city limits was their best job option.

No experience was needed. Few questions were asked. With a high turnover at the plant, it was easy to get a job. It drew much of its work force from the subsidized housing projects nearby, often single mothers who walked to work.

"This is the last place to work. If you don't have no other place to work, they'll take you in," said Brenda Bailey, who came from the unemployment office to the plant two years ago.

A new hire started at minimum wage. After a few months, one could make $5.60 an hour.

"They got cheap labor. They knew a lot of single mothers had to pay off their bills," said Doris Fairly, whose sister-in-law died in the fire.

Of 25 killed, 18 were women. According to city officials, 13 were white, 12 black.

Some who worked there were wary of the dangers in the plant. Rudolph Spencer, who cleaned the machines at night, said he was told that the exit doors were locked because "they didn't want somebody stealing the chickens."

Others say they never noticed. "To tell you the truth, it never occurred to us that something might happen," said Loretta Goodwin.

But at poultry plants such as Imperial where chicken is cooked, "fires are the No. 1 complaint," said Valerie Ervin, an organizer with the United Food and Commercial Workers in Washington. "With vats of 400-degree oil in there, there are fires all the time."

With no union to protect them, workers were discouraged from reporting dangers.

"It's very hard to convince people to report violations because they will get fired," said Ramon Rodriquez, a community organizer for an Episcopal Church organization. "They can't afford to lose their job."

The fire at the Hamlet plant has caused some introspection in this community of 6,500, where the weave of kinship or friendship brings nearly everyone into the fabric of mourning.

"This is a small town, and people take care of their own," said Mayor Abbie Covington.

She has urged state inspectors to pursue charges against the plant owners if criminal violations are found. But she wrestles with the question of whether Hamlet should have cracked down on the plant, and whether the city should encourage its reopening.

"Two hundred jobs has a significant impact in this community," Mayor Covington said. "For a lot of people, any kind of job is better than no job at all."

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