This much we know about working on the poultry processing line: It's not for the faint of heart. Conditions are arduous, cold, noisy, humid, slippery and dangerous.
But that's about all everyone can agree on. Many of us have grave concerns about how the companies actually treat workers. We believe the pay is too low, safety measures are inadequate and workers often do not feel free to speak out about problems they see in the plants. When we voice these concerns, companies respond that everything is fine.
This is not just a matter of opinion; it affects thousands of workers and their families. We'd like to bring all the sides together to engage in a truthful and transparent dialogue. We're a broad coalition with a variety of interests on the Eastern Shore: faith leaders, legal service providers, workers' rights advocates and leaders of non-governmental organizations. Maryland is home to Perdue, one of the largest poultry companies in the United States, and one of the most robust chicken economies in the country.
Unfortunately, this conversation is not happening, even though we've made every effort. We were delighted to respond to the offer that Perdue made in a letter to The Sun in early 2016: "Our poultry plants are not secretive operations; we regularly welcome state and community leaders, local media, customers and prospective associates to tour our operations."
Several organizations joined together to write to Perdue, requesting a meeting and a tour. In response, Perdue sent a letter that outlined, again, the steps they take for workers in their plants.
However, that was all they had to say. Even though they'd extended the invitation, they did not answer our request to meet or to tour a plant. When the groups sent a second letter, Perdue did not respond at all.
We want to share our experiences with the poultry industry, and we want to hear from leaders at Perdue. Let's bring the disparate parties together, take a good hard look at the reality of life inside the plants and see if we can't make some productive changes.
There is a lot to discuss and to clarify. Poultry workers on the Eastern Shore are willing to endure the arduous conditions and do what they can to make the industry as productive as possible: They work hard and long, and contribute to the local and national economy. Each year, they process over a quarter of a billion chickens, adding up to over $1 billion for the Maryland economy.
In return, they would like the poultry companies to take their responsibilities to the workers just as seriously.
Independent surveys of workers in the region reveal that the companies are cutting corners and squeezing workers as much as possible in the rush to produce chickens and profits. Every day, we hear about high rates of injury and illness, inadequate compensation and, often, lack of opportunity to express grievances or make their voices heard as company employees.
Perdue is an industry giant, having been founded and guided by three generations of the Perdue family, and now employing thousands of workers in plants across the country. Those of us who live and work in the Delmarva region have a lot of appreciation for the longevity and success of the business.
The company has taken some steps to keep up with changes in consumer demand and the economics of poultry processing. It has recently made announcements about phasing out the use of antibiotics and improving animal welfare.
We're asking today to include workers in the conversation about the future of the industry. The people who spend their working lives inside these plants need to be considered; their voices are vital to the health and welfare of the industry, their families and the state economy.
It's well past time for Perdue to answer our requests, and to meet with us to open the dialogue and catch up with the demands of a modern economy.
Minor Sinclair (OAUSMinorSinclair@gmail.com) is the director of the U.S. domestic program at Oxfam America. Solomon Iyobosa Omo-Osagie II (OmoOsagieImpact@gmail.com) is pastor at the Impact Pentecostal Fellowship Church of God In Christ. Leila Borrero Krouse (LeilaBorreroKrouseCATA@gmail.com) is the coordinator of the Salisbury office of CATA (The Farmworker Support Committee). This op-ed is written with the support of the Center for Progressive Reform and the Socially Responsible Agricultural Project.