Getting permission to take a bathroom break at Tyson is a real problem. I stood on that processing line for thirty minutes and held myself. I was bent over I was hurting so bad. Finally I took off running, and I like to fell over my apron. When I got to the restroom a lady in there said, “Baby, what’s wrong?” I said, “Please help me!” I couldn’t even get my equipment off. I had been waiting for a break for thirty minutes, and [my supervisor] was just steady telling me, “Wait a minute. Wait a minute. Wait a minute.”
—Keisha Brown, “Team Member” at Tyson Foods*
Keisha Brown’s painful and humiliating experience as an employee of Tyson Foods in the largest chicken processing plant in the country is as common as it is outrageous. In fact, poultry workers across the country are plagued by their superiors’ routine denial of bathroom breaks, a fact brought to the public’s attention last week when Oxfam America released its latest report.
Documenting this chronic abuse in great detail, No Relief shares the stories of workers who restrict water intake and are compelled to wear diapers on the job to avoid urinating and defecating on themselves on the processing line.
As horrific and dangerous as these abuses are for workers’ basic health, safety, and human dignity, they are not new. When I worked with the Mississippi Poultry Workers’ Center a decade ago, the denial of bathroom breaks was far and away workers’ most common grievance.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the government body tasked with ensuring the health and safety of workplaces across the country, states that workers have a basic right to use the bathroom and employers cannot “impose unreasonable restrictions” on bathroom breaks, but such regulations are rarely enforced.
At one Sanderson Farms plant, workers on the evisceration, or “evis,” line were categorically denied bathroom breaks as part of department policy. After several women urinated in their clothes while awaiting permission to use the facilities, their union filed a complaint with OSHA. This fixed the problem in evis, but the abuse continued in other departments and at other plants.
In an effort to address workers’ widespread concern about bathroom breaks, representatives of the Mississippi Poultry Workers’ Center met with the director of the federal OSHA office in the state. There we learned that OSHA employed just twelve compliance officers, who were responsible for monitoring health and safety of every workplace in Mississippi—a million workers in nearly half as many establishments. Due to this utter dearth of resources, the director explained, most of OSHA’s attention goes toward investigating workplace accidents that result in fatalities or mass hospitalization. Addressing concerns such as the systemic denial of bathroom breaks is simply beyond OSHA’s capacity, we were told. So they go uninvestigated year after year.
At one workers’ center meeting, Andrés Navarro, a line worker who had previously worked as a supervisor, explained the problem like this: “When someone goes to the bathroom and leaves a shackle empty, that’s a loss for the company. The general manager is going to complain to the superintendent, the superintendent is going to complain to the supervisor, and the supervisor has to do something. Because if not, they’re going to suspend the supervisor. I mean, it’s a chain.”
Indeed, the deeper problem lies in management’s failure to implement a signaling system whereby workers who need a break can be temporarily replaced by “floaters.” Were there sufficient floaters—a practice recommended by OSHA, unions, and occupational health scholars alike—bathroom breaks would not be such a problem for workers, supervisors, or others up the chain of command.
Poultry workers need bathroom breaks, but they also want their employers to recognize their humanity and treat them with dignity and respect. This doesn’t just mean having more compassionate supervisors; as Navarro’s explanation points out it requires that industry leaders such as Tyson and Sanderson Farms create and enforce policies, such as the use of floaters, that accommodate breaks as needed.
As consumers, we can withhold our purchasing power from companies that violate their workers’ basic human rights. We also have the power to inform our elected officials, encouraging them to pass worker-friendly legislation and provide the resources necessary for organizations like OSHA to enforce policies that already exist. Add your voice to the Campaign for Poultry Worker Justice today.
Angela Stuesse is an assistant professor of Anthropology at the University of South Florida and the author of a new book on the poultry industry, Scratching Out a Living: Latinos, Race, and Work in the Deep South.
* Pseudonyms are used to protect the identities of workers.