Americans eat more chicken than any other meat, an average of 89 pounds per year. That enormous demand for what's considered a relatively inexpensive protein source is feeding the $50 billion poultry industry.
In recent years, consumer groups have pushed the industry to stop feeding antibiotics and move laying hens to cage-free pens. But while many people are concerned with the welfare of meat animals, there appears to be little consumer concern for how workers in the meat industry are treated.
On Tuesday, Oxfam America, part of the anti-poverty international group Oxfam, released a report calling on consumers and the government to help better what it said are "grim" conditions for the largely invisible people who work at the four largest poultry producers.
In the report, titled "Lives on the line, the human cost of cheap chicken," Oxfam America calls on the companies who make up 60 percent of the market – Tyson Foods, Pilgrim's, Perdue and Sanderson Farms – to provide better pay and benefits, create a safer environment and give employees a voice in the workplace.
Most workers are immigrants, refugees or prisoners from local jails, employees treated so poorly that turnover is 100 percent, said Oliver Gottfried of Oxfam America.
"The companies take advantage of these economically desperate populations and enforce what we call a climate of fear," he said, "where they use harassment, discrimination, threats of firing and actual firing -- and even threats of deportation -- to keep workers from speaking out about these dangerous conditions."
Workers face factory line speeds that have doubled in the past 30 years, cutting up 34 chickens a minute and getting injured by unguarded machinery, sharp knives, or repetitive actions, the report said (and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has previously reported).
The National Chicken Council responded to the report, saying it has decreased its injury and illness rate over the last 20 years and will "continue to seek new and innovative ways to protect our workforce."
"It is unfortunate that Oxfam portrays an undeserved negative image of the entire poultry industry despite our outstanding record of improvement in employee health and safety, particularly over the past three decades," the statement read.
The companies allow a single half-hour lunch break but forbid workers from leaving the line during an eight-hour-plus shift, Gottfried said.
"That means that workers aren't allowed to go to the bathroom even when they ask for it," he said, "and so, many workers have reported either dramatically reducing their intake of liquid or being forced to wear diapers on the line."
As consumption fuels the industry growth, profits are also growing. Revenues and stock prices are up for Tyson Foods, for instance, and executive compensations have risen along with the favorable financial reports. William Lovette, CEO and president of Pilgrim's Pride, made $9.3 million in 2014.
Meanwhile, workers are paid about $11 an hour, placing them near the federal family poverty line with annual salaries of $20,000 to $25,000, Gottfried said.
"So that means (Lovette) makes in five hours what one of the workers on his processing line makes (a year)," Gottfried said.
There has been some movement on pay. Last Friday, Tyson announced it would pay a minimum of $10 an hour (some workers had made as low as $8 an hour) and those who stay on the job for a year will move to $12 an hour.
Oxfam officials hope the report helps trigger another wave of reform in the food industry, triggered by consumers who demand better treatment of workers. Shoppers should ask for products processed under safe working conditions, said Minor Sinclair of Oxfam.
"Consumers do have power," Sinclair said. "Already they pushed through changes in antibiotic policies within the poultry industry. They've pushed through improvements for cage-free hens. Frankly, one of the workers we worked with said, 'If they care this much about their animals, why can't they care about the people?'"