Our VoiceHealth & Environment

Packinghouse Bathroom Breaks: Leaving Human Dignity at the Plant Gate


Rev. David L. Ostendorf • May 18, 2011

It happened again several weeks ago.  He asked permission to go to the bathroom.  His supervisor told him to wait till a replacement was found for his position on the line. The supervisor didn’t come back.

He could wait no longer; the discomfort was overwhelming. Once again he urinated in his clothing, standing there on the line as the meat flew by.

For generations of meatpacking and poultry processing workers the right to go to the bathroom has been a deeply contentious issue.  In the 1930s a packinghouse supervisor reportedly told workers “If you have to go to the can you’d better not be gone for more than seven minutes.”  Keeping the line going was—and still is—an absolute.  In 1998 more worker complaints were registered.   In its 2009 report on meatpacking workers, Nebraska Appleseed underscored the problems associated with denial of bathroom breaks.  It may be 2011, but workers are still being reined in when it comes to this basic human need.  After all, from the companies’ perspective, what better way for workers to con an extra break…

Workers do get regular breaks—usually two per shift—to use the bathroom and grab a few minutes away from their grueling tasks.  Line workers in one plant were recently told that they would be granted two additional bathroom breaks per week, as if that were a real privilege.  As one Missouri packinghouse worker stated so profoundly, “When you walk into the plant, you leave your human dignity at the gate.”  In non-union plants especially, this is indeed the sure reality facing workers every day.

In short, bathroom break rules are what the company—and the line supervisors—say they are. There is no state or federal agency around to assure or enforce this basic human need.  The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has no jurisdiction.  Apparently the vastly overwhelmed and understaffed Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division does.  While it seems that food safety may be in jeopardy in meat and poultry plants where workers may not make it to the bathroom in time, the Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is silent on the matter.  Urinating—or worse—on the line seems not to be of great concern when it comes to either workers or consumers.

Packinghouse workers themselves are coming together to demand that this basic human need be provided and protected without qualification. Against the power of the packing companies, and in remote areas where they may have little support, they are organizing and asserting their dignity and their right to healthy workplaces and working conditions.  While they know their struggle will not be easy in the face of a century of practices and power exerted by the packers over a simple matter like bathroom breaks, the workers also know they will prevail because they are right.

No one should be denied to a bathroom break when needed.  No one should have to leave their human dignity at the plant gate.

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