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U.S. poultry workers denied washroom breaks, forced to wear diapers, Oxfam America says

U.S. poultry plant workers are routinely denied adequate washroom breaks, leading some to wear diapers on the job, anti-poverty group Oxfam America says in a report.

Agency calls for use of more 'floater' workers to allow for adequate breaks

According to an Oxfam America report, poultry workers report being made to wait long periods of time to take a washroom break when working on the production line. (Earl Dotter/Oxfam America)

U.S. poultry plant workers are routinely denied adequate washroom breaks, leading some to wear diapers on the job, anti-poverty group Oxfam America says in a report.

Workers report waiting anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour to be able to leave the production line to go to the washroom, Oxfam said.

"[Workers] restrict intake of liquids and fluids to dangerous degrees; they endure pain and discomfort while they worry about their health and job security. And they are in danger of serious health problems," the group said in its report.

"The situation strikes women particularly hard. They face biological realities such as menstruation, pregnancy, and higher vulnerability to infections; and they struggle to maintain their dignity and privacy when requesting breaks," Oxfam said.

The group, which has been on a campaign since last autumn to improve working conditions at U.S. poultry plants, said its report sprang from research dating from 2013-16. The group said it reviewed documents and conducted interviews with current and former workers, worker advocates, attorneys, medical experts, analysts and others.

The group quoted some workers in its report, but said it was using pseudonyms to protect them from possible retribution.

"Jean, from a Tyson plant in Virginia, says that even though she's diabetic, 'I don't drink any water so I won't have to go,'" the report said.

Oxfam said many workers are afraid of being mocked, punished, or fired if they ask permission to leave the production line. 

"In one survey of 266 workers in Alabama conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center, nearly 80 per cent said they are not allowed to take washroom breaks when needed," Oxfam said in its report.

Denial of regular access to the washroom violates U.S. workplace safety laws, and could also violate anti-discrimination laws, including the Americans with Disabilities Act and civil rights laws outlawing gender and sex discrimination, Oxfam said.

The group said the firms in the poultry production industry could alleviate the issue by using sufficient "floaters" ready to stand in for workers when they need to use the restroom.  

"It would bring enormous benefits: to health and safety, to food safety, to workers' dignity, and to the companies' financial and legal risks and reputation," the group said.

The four largest U.S. poultry companies — Tyson Foods, Pilgrim's, Perdue, and Sanderson Farms — employ over 100,000 poultry processing workers and control almost 60 per cent of the market, Oxfam said.

Tyson Foods has said it is concerned by the claims, but currently has "no evidence they're true." The company said it would not tolerate the refusal of requests to use the restroom.

NBC News reported that Perdue said its workers are given two 30-minute breaks during an eight-hour shift.

Pilgrim's Pride said in an e-mailed statement to IndustryWeek magazine that "any allegations of the nature claimed by Oxfam, if proven, would be clear violations of company policy and would result in disciplinary action."

Simmons Foods also said refusal of washroom breaks is not tolerated.

The National Chicken Council  and the U.S. Poultry & Egg Association said they are troubled by the claims in the Oxfam report, "but also question this group's efforts to paint the whole industry with a broad brush based on a handful of anonymous claims."

"We believe such instances are extremely rare and that U.S. poultry companies work hard to prevent them," they said in a statement.

With files from The Associated Press