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The price of cheap chicken - Brazilian unions attack high line speeds in the export industry

Posted to the IUF website 13-Mar-2006

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The following article by Gunnar Brulin appeared in the March issue of the Swedish Food Workers' Union journal Mål och Medel.

Her hand has stiffened into a grotesque shape. Sara Odete Plack has to learn to use her left hand instead. To eat lunch she needs help with everything, help with getting the food from the buffet, help with cutting up the meat, everything is a problem.
After lunch, she visits the union office in the city of Encantado for a talk. Sara is one of many people with occupational injuries who is testifying about her employer’s treatment. She used to work at the chicken factory Penasul Alimentos.

“I worked there for six months,” she says. “I was in pain but carried on working. When I asked the supervisor about it he said it was normal. People usually got sore in the beginning, but they got used to it.”

Her hand became inflamed, but she continued working anyway, forcing herself to carry on. For two months she worked like that, with her hand shaped like a claw.
When she went to the company doctor he said her fingers were broken. Later, another doctor who was not employed by the company told her they weren’t broken at all. It was a specialist in Porto Alegre who x-rayed her arm and hand.

She has practically no circulation in it and it feels cold.

No help from the “yellow” trade union

In order to get compensation for her occupational injury she needed a certificate from the company, but she didn’t dare ask for one, and the yellow (company-affiliated) trade union did not offer any help.

Sara was fired and now has to live on social security. At home she has three daughters, aged 6, 14 and 18. She has to take painkillers to get to sleep and can only lie on her side, which keeps going numb. She is 41 years old.

The meeting with Sara and other people with occupational injuries is part of a campaign initiated by the Brazilian food industry workers’ union, Contac, with the aim of introducing a regulation of the work pace in the Brazilian chicken industry.

Together with Contac’s chairman, Siderlei de Oliveira, I am travelling round Rio Grande do Sul to visit the industrial townships that depend on chicken exports for their income.

The factory where Sara worked is in the small town of Roca Sales. It is situated in the middle of town, in an old, dilapidated building. A Maersk Sealand container truck is parked outside. The actual building does not have a factory logo. Trucks bearing the previous company name, Pena Branca, drive in and out.

I tried to get an interview with the company management of Penasul, but they don’t want to talk to me.

Three years ago, the major American food corporation OSI Group bought the Brazilian company, which has a fully integrated production system, from fodder production and chicken breeding, to culling, quartering and refining. Exports go to more than 30 countries, including Sweden.

Global workshop for farming

In the past decade, chicken production in Brazil has rocketed. Transnational companies have bought up the domestic industry, expanded it, invested in facilities and turned it into the world leader in the field.

Brazil is now to farming what China is to manufacturing: a global workshop. The country has enormous expanses of arable land for meat and fodder production, a near-perfect climate and cheap labour.

2.5 million Brazilians are employed in chicken production.

Sara comes with us in the car. She lives ten kilometres outside Roca Sales, along the road to Porto Alegre.

“One-third of my work mates have RSI,” she tells us. She relates how her immediate boss helped her a little when she was injured, but not the site manager, who he did nothing.

One-third of the 850 workers, i.e. nearly 300 people in that one factory that exports chicken to Sweden, have injuries caused by the highline speeds. The chicken concerned is served in Swedish lunch restaurants. It is marketed by ICA Meny and is imported by the farmer-owned company Annerstedt.

“I love fishing,” says Sara, “but I can’t do it any more, with just one hand. I can’t get the maggot on the hook.”

Nevertheless, she has not lost hope. If she gets the right help she might be able to use her left hand more, and could even learn to write with it. That is her hope.

Meeting with the UN Commission

Siderlei de Oliveira’s mobile rings and he parks along the curb. The call is from a member of parliament in Brasilia, Luci Chinaki, who says she is organising a meeting in the capital to discuss the problem of line speeds and occupational injuries among women with the UN Commission on human rights in the workplace.

“You’ll have to go to Brasilia,” Siderlei tells Sara, who is in the back seat.

“Me?” she asks. “Will I have to go by coach? It’s a long way.”

“No, no” says Siderlei. “You can go by plane. You don’t have to take the coach all the way.”

Brazil is a vast country, covering half of South America, and with a population of 175 million. It is a republic, and the president is Lula, who comes from the Workers’ Party, PT, and was formerly a trade union leader.

At this point there is potential for change. Siderlei has been talking to ministers in Brasilia. He has mustered support from the national trade union center CUT for the campaign to introduce work pace regulations. If everything goes according to plan the campaign will result in a large meeting in the capital with 2,000 poultry workers from all over the country.

Their principal demand will be for national work pace regulations.

The French food giant Doux has a huge chicken factory with 2,000 employees in Montenegro.

Some 100 workers, mostly women, turn up at the meeting organised in the city by the food workers’ union. Asked if anyone has repetitive strain injuries, nearly everyone puts their hand up.

A lawyer from the CUT is there to inform them of the possibility of going to court with their claims.

The high work pace is a serious problem, along with the long working hours. The women say that they often have to work much more than eight hours. Their shifts sometimes last for 12-13 hours.

They are angry when they show us scars from unsuccessful surgery to restore limb mobility. Their stories are similar to Sara’s. They have also been sacked without any documentation of their injuries and now have to live on social welfare.

Inflammation spreads

One woman, Pedrinha Pereira, has muscular inflammations in her arms and shoulders that has spread down into her leg so that she can hardly walk.

How can the injuries grow this serious? Roberto Ruiz, MD and expert on RSI, who has been consulted by the IUF, says that it is due to the company doctors. Instead of putting people on sick leave, they prescribe painkillers and tell them to go back to work. In that way, the injuries gradually get worse, until they have reached a stage where they become chronic and incurable. Many of the women I meet have injuries of this kind.

In Serrafina Corrêa, a town with 3,000 inhabitants, the large Brazilian poultry company Perdigao has a plant with 2,000 employees.

Workers are bussed in from the surrounding countryside. The union has documented that 20 per cent of the town population suffers from RSI.

Along the long production line workers cut up the chickens by hand.

“The line sets the work pace,” José Modelski and Geni Dalla Rosa, two of the leaders of the food workers’ union, explain. “We prepare chicken breasts for export. Those who can’t keep up get a warning. Three warnings, and you’re liable to get fired. You simply have to work as fast as the belt is moving.”

Economic dependence

In the larger town of Marau, with a population of 35,000, half the economy depends on Perdigao, and union president Clovis Spenassto receives us and shows us around the town after a meeting with some 40 women suffering from RSI.

There are two sides to the poultry industry. One is all these injured women, whose lives are completely ruined by the inhuman working conditions.

The other is the obvious prosperity that followed in the wake of the chicken export industry. Co-operative housing for workers has been built on the hillsides in Marau. The union runs a school and dental and medical health services. The company has built a big indoor arena where the union female football team played in a tournament the previous weekend.

The fact that Perdigao has been certified for export of chicken to Sweden is something the local management mentions proudly when I visit their offices.

But they refuse to acknowledge any problems to do with women with work-related RSI or the work pace.

“We have job rotation and exercise during breaks, and those who nevertheless experience problems are moved to other tasks,” says the director, Milvo Mittanack.

That’s as far as they can get with Perdigao, with whom the union representatives feel they have a working dialogue.

Siderlei de Oliveira comments that what they need are national regulations concerning the work pace throughout Brazil, not just in the individual companies. That is what the campaign is striving for.

In order to succeed, consumers need to become more aware and trade unions more supportive in the countries that import the chicken.