Several hundred growers, catchers, plant workers and faith community members gathered at Epworth Methodist Church in Candler Park to tell stories of systematic abuses by the largest and fastest-growing segment of agriculture in Georgia, the poultry industry. They're asking Congress to institute a fair living wage, ensure safe processing plants, allow workers to organize without reprisal, enforce and strengthen state and federal laws and take responsibility for the environmental impact of the poultry industry.
Rep. John Lewis flew into town for the hearing, accompanied by Maryland Congressman Wayne Gilchrest. Rep. Cynthia McKinney, Sen. Max Cleland and the Rev. Jesse Jackson sent representatives.
Thirty-three plants call Georgia home, tying us for first-place in the nation with Arkansas in poultry processing. Five of the top 10 producers are located here. The industry reached the $13 billion a year mark in 1999, and the workers testifying said it was as a result of cheating growers, endangering catchers and truck drivers and intimidating plant workers,
"We've been trying to reform the industry for years," said attorney Justine Thompson, a member of the Georgia Poultry Justice Alliance. "They're too strong."
While industry profits have risen over 300 percent since 1987, the people who help put chicken on the dinner table have not shared in the prosperity, panelists were told. With domination of market share by a few companies like Tyson, Perdue, ConAgra and Goldkist (none of whom returned our calls), said those testifying, growers have little choice when presented with take-it-or-leave-it contracts.
At $130,000 per chicken house, amortized over 10 years to pay off mortgages, retired grower and math professor Herb Robinson said it is now impossible to make money.
Patrick Nugent saw 10 years of his family's hard work go by without a profit when, he said, Goldkist canceled his contract without warning or reason. "I feel grossly inadequate as a man," said Nugent. "I saw this happen to other farmers and they walked away. I can't do that."
Those assembled said that catchers who collect the chickens and load them into trucks fare no better. Often rising at 2 a.m., the catchers receive no overtime or benefits. Industry pay averages $2 for each 1,000 chickens caught. While hours and responsibilities have increased over the past decade, pay has decreased from $112 a day to $94. Over 60 percent of catchers eventually suffer from respiratory infections.
With long days of waiting on catchers to load the trucks and multiple trips, truck driver Curates Holcomb said exhausted drivers aren't allowed breaks or even a stop for a drink.
And at the plants, said the workers, the labor abuses continue.
Carol Hubbard has worked at the ConAgra plant in Athens for 23 years. "You stand on your feet 10 hours a day, in the cold, snapping chicken parts between your fists 90 times a minute," she said. "I've seen the line go from 60 to 70 to 90 chickens a minute. Now they're talking about 140. I might be fired tomorrow, but it's not about me anymore, it's not about ConAgra, it's about the workers' safety."
When Billie James' foot was hit by a pallet jack at Tyson, she says the doctor told her to elevate it but was transferred to picking up trash in the parking lot. "I couldn't do it, and I lost my job," cried the mother of two. "If it wasn't for God and my mother, I don't know what I would do."
Robin Dills worked in Goldkist's Ellijay plant skinning chicken breasts. With 25 fellow employees all reportedly fired for pro-union activity standing behind her, she recounted how she developed carpal tunnel syndrome and was immediately let go.
It is no accident that half of the industry's employees nationwide are Hispanic, said Jose Commacho. "They cheat us because we can't speak English."
When he broke his left foot and suffered a serious head injury at Tyson, he says he was fired before he left the emergency room.
"Why aren't you helping us?" shouted one grower to the congressional panel.
Responded Lewis, "I'm going to talk with my colleagues and see what we have to do to come up with the proper legislation. Never ever give up, never ever give in. I pledge to you I will try to do something to help."
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