May 2, 2018 - Economy

Easing one of the world's worst jobs

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Poultry and meat workers quit in numbers rivaling almost any industry. That's because their physically tough work is among the least-pleasant on the planet.

What's new: Tyson Foods — the largest American poultry producer — is getting praised by industry activists for improved conditions, including higher wages and an education program for its largely immigrant work force.

  • Wages were an average of $14.78 an hour last year, the company says in a report issued last month.
  • Hundreds of the company's workers have participated in an in-plant education program, called Upward Academy, says Kevin Scherer, senior manager for employee social responsibility at Tyson.
  • The education program, done in partnership with state and local government funding, reached its 27th plant last month.

The background: Tyson has been under intense scrutiny for worker injuries and other problems, but two years ago agreed to join a program organized by Oxfam to improve worker conditions. Oxfam's Minor Sinclair said he tried to get the four major food companies to participate — Tyson, Perdue, Pilgrim's Pride and Sanderson Farms — but that only Tyson agreed.

  • "Our sense is that Tyson's has taken real steps forward improving pay," Sincair tells Axios. "It's a work in progress. You don't move to a totally clean slate. They are on the right path, engaging in a serious way and responsive to us and other people."

In response to an email, Pilgrim's referred questions to his sustainability report for 2017. Case and Sanderson Farms did not respond.

The industry is so tough that Tyson and the other companies have to scour the U.S. for mostly immigrant workers willing to do the job, said Christopher Leonard, author of The Meat Racket, a book on Tyson.

  • Leonard tells Axios that workers are immigrants coming from as far away as southeast Asia and Somalia.
  • Scherer said there can be 30 different languages spoken in the plants.
  • This is the rationale behind Upward Academy, which teaches English, ordinary life skills, and preparation for U.S. citizenship.

"The problem we are trying to address is the issue of stability," Scherer said. "My team deeply believes that if you can bring stability to a person in family life you can bring stability to work force metrics. It makes great business sense."

Go deeper: Last year, the New Yorker's Michael Grabell profiled Case Farms.

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