Whether you’ve ever worked in the meat industry or not, it’s probably not surprising to hear that wages are extremely low for workers on the ground. What might surprise you, however, is that some of the biggest corporate giants in the chicken industry allegedly meet up to intentionally keep wages and benefits low. These employers include Tyson Foods, Sanderson Farms, JCG Foods, Wayne Farms, Perdue Farms, Pilgrim’s Pride Corp, Peco Foods, and WSFP Foods.
That’s the allegation behind a lawsuit filed last week in Maryland. The lawsuit, which was filed on behalf of three former employees based in Arkansas, is seeking class-action status for more than 100,000 others. The suit is an impressive 77 pages and seems to leave no issue undiscussed. The suit alleges that the chicken-processing industry has been meeting up in Destin, Florida, since at least 2009, with the sheer goal of keeping benefits and wages for line and maintenance workers low.
That’s right: According to the suit, higher-ups from the companies gathered at the Hilton Sandestin Resort Hotel & Spa in Destin for, at this point, an entire decade to conspire to keep wages as low as possible. Mind you, these jobs are not just difficult, but dangerous. How dangerous? For about $11 an hour, as reported in a 2015 Oxfam report, a worker may be exposed to sharp knives, repetitive motion, and yes, literal live animals. In the southern U.S. (where most of the plants in this complaint are located), at best $11 an hour keeps workers at the poverty line, if not below.
The other trend? These workers are almost always immigrants.
This detail is important because many, many of these workers have limited English skills and few, if any, other job prospects. So basically, the suit alleges that these companies realized they had a vulnerable, desperate workforce … and decided to take advantage of that.
Logistics matter, too. You might think: Well, okay, but can’t the worker in question just relocate and work at a plant that isn’t involved in this scheme? First of all, moving is far from easy, especially if you’re making poverty-level wages. Aside from that, these plants are located mostly in the southeastern U.S. The complaint notes, in fact, that most are within just 28 miles of one another.
So while a worker might conceivably apply to another location, hoping for better pay or conditions, they're likely to be met with exactly what they were offered before. Essentially: These companies worked together to keep workers disadvantaged.
The suit alleges that these companies used consulting agencies as intermediaries to share wage information. From there, plant managers keep the cycle going by calling one another when it comes to announcing the pay for a new position, for example.
“We do not believe this suit has any merit,” a spokesperson for Perdue, Andrea Staub, told Bloomberg in an email. “Our compensation philosophy is to pay fair and in some cases above average wages.” Other heavy hitters, including Sanderson, Wayne, and Tyson haven’t yet released a comment.
If the wages are so fair, perhaps it’s time for the higher-ups to trade in their salaries for a cool $11 an hour. And start dealing with live animals while they’re at it.