In 1999, just before the turn of the millennium, my denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, by a wide majority at their national assembly, adopted a social statement recognizing the moral imperative for a sufficient, sustainable livelihood for all people. Recognizing our present market system does accomplish this for many people, the social statement also advocated for specific practices for extending sufficiency, sustainability and a just livelihood for all, in particular the poor.
The ELCA called for the enforcement of regulations against discrimination, exploitative work conditions and labor practices, and for the right of workers to organize and bargain collectively.
Wages and Working Conditions in Arkansas Poultry Plants
In Christian ethical perspective, employers have a responsibility to treat employees with dignity and respect. This should be reflected in employees' remuneration, benefits, work conditions, job security and ongoing job training. No one should be coerced to work under conditions that violate their dignity or freedom, jeopardize their health or safety, result in neglect of their family's well being, or provide unjust compensation for their labor.
As a pastor, observing many workplace contexts, I notice that often those working at the corporate level are unaware of the privileges they enjoy that others working in the places of production do not. I have been to many corporate offices, and I know people have regular access to restrooms, sick-leave benefits, safeguards against hazardous working conditions and policies protecting against workplace discrimination and harassment. They are often compensated at levels significantly above the poverty line. I believe these companies value their employees and are committed to recognizing the dignity of all workers. Where they struggle is in extending these benefits to all their workers, especially those on the lines.
Reading the poultry report -- Wages and Working Conditions in Arkansas Poultry Plants -- and hearing from workers, I believe local producers like Tyson Foods, George's Inc., Cargill, Ozark Mountain Poultry and Simmons Foods have a responsibility to address all the issues raised in the report. They know they have a responsibility to treat employees with dignity and respect. They have the power to do so. They must -- and do it quickly. They are not currently extending sufficiency, sustainability and a just livelihood to all workers, and they seem in many ways reluctant to move forward quickly rectifying injustices. There is no reason why poultry producers cannot proactively and immediately address and monitor all the issues raised in the report.
Here are the recommendations: Increase enforcement of wage and hour laws; regulate and reduce line speeds to reduce injuries and contamination; guarantee paid sick days for all workers; explore measures to reduce discrimination and harassment of workers and increase mobility for workers of color and foreign-born workers; facilitate workers' ability to organize collectively for better working conditions; ensure access to bathroom breaks to protect worker health and dignity.
I was also supportive of the Shareholder Proposal Regarding Report on Working Conditions brought to shareholders of Tyson this last week, which requests the board of directors cause Tyson Foods to publish, by April 1 and annually thereafter, a report disclosing objective assessments of working conditions in its processing plants. Reports should include incidents of noncompliance, remedial actions taken and measures contributing to long-term mitigation and improvements. Among other disclosures, data, to include: 1) detailed employee injury causes and rates; 2) employee compensation by job type and location; and 3) detailed employee retention rates by job type and location showing average employment length at Tyson. The report should be publicly released at reasonable cost, omitting proprietary information.
Unfortunately, this resolution was voted down by the majority of shareholder votes controlled by the Tyson family.
What gets measured gets managed, and I am convinced, if the poultry industry commits to measuring themselves on the issues raised by shareholders and the Northwest Arkansas Workers' Justice Center, they will manage truly to make humane and dignified working conditions a reality for all poultry plant employees.
Support of these resolutions and recommendations is in the best interest of consumers, shareholders, poultry-industry employees, workers and our Northwest Arkansas community. These companies are committed to faith and good business practice -- remember, it is Tyson Foods, for example, which also supports many relief efforts in Northwest Arkansas and funded the Tyson Center for Faith and Spirituality in the Workplace at the University of Arkansas.
Poultry corporations are at their best when they work on improving all these issues and responding to worker needs.
Poultry plant workers are our neighbors, colleagues and friends. A great first step would be for Tyson and other corporate leaders to sit down at a common table with workers and really listen to and empower them. Workers have been created in the image of God. Let us treat them that way -- just as we would like to be treated ourselves.
NAN Religion on 02/13/2016