Photographer: Brendon Thorne/Bloomberg

Tyson Commits to Better Worker Conditions After Criticism

  • Gets rare praise from Oxfam, union on workplace efforts
  • Seeks cut in injuries; pilot program to raise pay at 2 plants

After years of exposés about working conditions in the U.S. meat industry, Tyson Foods Inc. pledged to improve pay and safety for more than 95,000 employees at domestic factories and be more transparent about its practices.

Tyson, the sector’s largest company, laid out its plan Wednesday in a statement. It’s working to achieve a 15 percent year-over-year reduction in injuries and illnesses as well as a 10 percent improvement in employee turnover, with the eventual goal of reaching zero for both. There’ll be a pilot program at two poultry plants to increase workers’ base wages and accelerate their move up the pay scale. Tyson also plans to release third-party social compliance audits.

The company has long been a target of criticism by regulators and activists over the conditions for its employees who slaughter, dismember and package roughly a fifth of all the beef, chicken and pork produced in the U.S. Under Tom Hayes, who started as chief executive officer on Dec. 31, Tyson has been pushing toward more sustainable practices. Last week it appointed its first chief sustainability officer.

“We believe sustainability is about continuous improvement and solutions that last, and this includes a healthier workplace,” said Noel White, Tyson’s chief operations officer. “We’ve always been committed to supporting our employees and have sound workplace practices in place, but also want to do better.”

Groups including Oxfam have called out Springdale, Arkansas-based Tyson and other poultry companies in the past for hazardous working conditions, such as inadequate bathroom breaks. In the last year, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration and its state partners inspected Tyson facilities 36 times, and in two cases proposed fines that the company is contesting, according to Bloomberg BNA. OSHA designated Tyson a “severe violator” in 2013, a designation later dropped following a formal settlement, BNA said.

Poultry Workers in Diapers as Bathroom Breaks Denied: Oxfam

To address these issues, Tyson has collaborated with its critics, including Oxfam and the United Food & Commercial Workers Union. Oxfam welcomed Thursday’s announcement. “Tyson’s commitment to accountability and transparency will be key to significantly improving conditions for poultry workers," Minor Sinclair, director of the group’s U.S. domestic program, said in a statement.

Tyson should be “a model” for other companies in the industry, said Marc Perrone, president of the UFCW, which has 22 labor contracts with the company representing more than 24,000 employees.

Tyson plans to hire more poultry plant trainers, expand safety communications programs and continue the participation of hourly workers in safety councils. “Trade-offs will be minimized” as it makes advancements toward healthier food, animals, environment and workplace, Hayes said in the company’s statement.

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