South's poultry plants thrive, feeding on workers' need N.C. fire highlights 'terrible conditions'

September 08, 1991|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Sun Staff Correspondent

HAMLET, N.C. -- The chicken kept coming. Bag after bag, hour after hour, day after day, the nuggets of white meat rode an insistent conveyor to Loretta Goodwin's weighing station.

As she snatched the next bag from the belt, she would eye the scale for the last bag and then pack it into a box.

Reach, weigh and pack. Six ounces a bag, 45 bags a box. Hundreds of boxes a day.

"Light bags!" she would holler at the women up the packing line if the arrivals were underweight. It never did much good. It was numbing work, Ms. Goodwin said. The mind slipped into a rut of counting. Her right arm ached from the ceaseless repetition: "It feels like fingers are pinching my flesh."

At week's end, she took home $179 from the Imperial Foods chicken plant in Hamlet. She was grateful for that. A single mother with a teen-age son, she was at least scratching out a living in a place where the scratching was hard.

For Ms. Goodwin and for many thousands like her, the chicken processing plants growing rapidly in the South offer grinding labor, degrading conditions, poverty wages -- and their only chance for work.

"You can't find much else better around here," said Ms. Goodwin, 43.

Tuesday revealed another burden of the job: danger. A fire at a trough of scalding cooking oil turned the air at the Imperial Food Products plant into a hot poison of smoke. Ms. Goodwin fled with dozens of others to a side door and found it locked.

In the terrible crush of bodies at the door, Ms. Goodwin managed to pull herself up from the pile of arms and legs. Frantic rescuers outside finally broke the lock, and she spilled, coughing, onto the ground.

The fire that killed 25 and left 56 injured also flushed into the open some of the harsher truths about the chicken processing plants, the latest industry of toil to reign in the South.

Critics of the industry have been frustrated at scant attention paid complaints of unsafe plants, worker abuse and diseased products.

"Poultry processing is the new plantation of the South," said Robert Hall, research director for the Institute for Southern Studies in Durham. "The mentality is the same. The value put on people is just as shocking."

The critics point to an industry of 150,000 workers where injuries are nearly three times the national average, where union protections are few, and where an employee with a family can work full time and still be under the poverty line.

But others see poultry plants offering employment in poor areas that need it, to workers often unqualified for other jobs.

The industry has grown as Americans gobble up more chicken. Since 1980, per-capita chicken consumption has increased 50 percent, to nearly that of beef. Where chickens once were mostly sold whole in supermarkets, more than half are now processed for sale as individual pieces or as prepared foods such as nuggets and fillets.

That processing has spawned about 250 factories in the "Broiler Belt" that arcs from the Eastern Shore of Maryland to the Texas Panhandle. The plants are often in small towns. Chicken growers and processors have made poultry the South's largest agricultural business: bigger than tobacco, cotton or peanuts.

Typically, those plants are filled by Hispanic or black women, who earn a dollar or two an hour more than the $4.25 minimum wage. They are often unskilled, uneducated and unable to get a better job. Many are single mothers.

"They put these plants in rural areas, where people want jobs and will tolerate terrible conditions because they have so few options," said Mr. Hall. "They pay well enough to hold people and create an atmosphere of fear. They let people know if they speak out, they will lose their jobs."

In Hamlet, the solemn march of funerals now being held has prompted workers to speak out. "God brought me out of there alive," said Ms. Goodwin. "It doesn't matter what I say now."

The workers at the Imperial Foods plant describe demeaning conditions with few benefits and no job security. They were routinely cursed by bosses, the employees say. They were allowed only one toilet break from the processing line. A single day off required a doctor's permission. Any infraction was noted as an "occurrence," and five occurrences would get a worker fired.

"The supervisors just treat you like you're nothing, and all they want you to do is get their chicken out," said Brenda MacDougald, 36, who had been at the plant two years.

"They treated people like dogs," said a bitter Alfonso Anderson. Peggy, his wife of 27 years, died in the fire. She had worked there 11 years, despite her complaints.

"Around here, you have to take some stuff and swallow it to keep a job," he said, fighting back tears.

The management of Imperial Foods has declined to speak to reporters since shortly after the fire.

Others say this plant was typical.

"The conditions in this plant are the same as in a lot of other plants," said Tony Muncus, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers local in Durham.

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