By Bridgette Simpson, Racial Justice Action Center
Pathways to Freedom works in three cities in the U.S., including Atlanta, to explore and address the root causes of labor and sexual exploitation. As part of that work, we supported a study on the current conditions of workers in and around Atlanta, which led us to the work of Bridgette Simpson, an organizer with the Racial Justice Action Center and Women on the Rise. Bridgette works to expose the inhumane working conditions at Georgia poultry plants.
The poultry industry in Georgia is a lucrative business. According to the Georgia Poultry Federation:
- The poultry industry contributes over $18.4 billion to the Georgia economy each year.
- Of the state’s 159 counties, 105 counties are involved in the industry, producing over $1 million worth of poultry products each year.
- On an average day, Georgia produces 26 million pounds of chicken and 9.2 million eggs.
- The annual production from an average Georgia poultry farm could feed over 22,000 people per year.
Those numbers are astounding. But who bears the burden of that high productivity? Who gets stepped on, then stepped over, in order for this industry to thrive?
It’s the people incarcerated by the Georgia Department of Corrections – they are the direct source of cheap labor for poultry plants throughout the state.
I know, because I was one of them.
From Exploitation to Advocacy
The urgency of changing this situation is crystal clear to me, because I know firsthand what it feels like to be exploited.
Because of that experience, today I’m employed as the community organizer for the Racial Justice Action Center (RJAC) and its program Women on the Rise (WOR). My job is to help end the exploitation and oppression of the most vulnerable members of society. The RJAC, founded and directed by Xochitl Bervera, builds grassroots leadership, power, and capacity in marginalized communities to win political, economic, and social transformation in the Atlanta Metro Area. WOR, founded and directed by Marilynn Winn, is led by women who have been targeted and/or impacted by the criminal legal system.
Together WOR and RJAC work to educate, heal and empower. They guide us in strengthening ourselves, and our communities to demand justice, dignity, and liberation for all. They lead us in advancing a vision of radically restructuring society so that all are treated justly.
Before I became an advocate, I served nine years in the Georgia Department of Corrections (GDC). Through the GDC’s transitional center, where people are transported daily to jobs and returned to the facility at the end of their shift, I went to work in one of north Georgia’s largest poultry processing plants. This plant is rumored to be a part-owner of the very prison that caged me. There I witnessed and personally experienced egregious and inhumane treatment of human beings.
It was hard to ignore the similarities between prison and the chicken plant I worked in while incarcerated. At times the conditions in the chicken plant were worse than prison, because toiling in brutally cold conditions made the experience even more exploitative.
Low Pay, Long Hours, Few Options
Let me tell you what I have seen and experienced. The most vulnerable of our society are being exploited every single second inside the walls of poultry plants throughout the state of Georgia.
The average person is paid minimum wage, working anywhere from 60-80 hours in a 6-7-day work week. Employees working in kill plants have opportunities to make more money, but only if they are willing to break the necks of the live chickens who scratch and excrete on workers in the process.
Most people employed in these horrid plants work under deplorable conditions and have very limited opportunities to earn income for their families. Poultry workers face a combination of barriers to traditional employment including, but not limited to, criminal convictions, lack of legal documentation, and extreme poverty. The poultry plant is often their only option for employment. These plants set up shop in rural, poverty-stricken areas with two goals in mind — maximum exploitation and maximum profits.
Here’s what it’s like to work in the monstrous agricultural-industrial complex. It’s a dark, dreary, dismal, and extremely cold night. Machines are chattering loudly as they busily take the once-warm bodies of chickens around conveyor belts of the poultry processing plant. The conveyor belt moves so quickly it can easily rip fingertips, thumbs, and at times, entire wrists from the arms of those working the line. Injuries can be severe enough to be fatal. Tonight, it is so cold that some workers don’t feel parts of their limbs, but still they press on.
People are shivering, though they wear at least two layers of hats, scarves, and jackets. Twelve hours of work in the freezing cold is enough to chill anyone to their bones. Yet, like the machines they work on, each person stays in their place and diligently keeps moving.
Each is hoping, wishing, and praying for a better opportunity, but there are none. Minimum wage, coupled with maximum work hours, is the future for those currently incarcerated, formerly incarcerated, or undocumented and working in the poultry plants in Georgia.
The Pool of Incarcerated Workers
The GDC is a major player in labor exploitation. According to an article by The Marshall Project, Why Incarcerated Poultry Workers Deserve Better:
The plants get highly vulnerable workers who are unlikely to complain about low wages or unsafe working conditions. The state, in turn, reaps millions to help pay for its mass incarceration operations.
There are two parts of the prison-industrial complex, the general population and the transitional center. People living in either situation have no unmonitored contact with the outside world. After my release in March of 2018, my former transitional center increased the number of people they transferred from general population to meet the high demands of the poultry plant.
Though the center was at capacity the GDC crammed an additional person into rooms designed to fit only two people. On June 29, 2019, I interviewed a woman currently in the Lee Arrendale transitional center about overcrowding. She prefers to stay anonymous for fear of retaliation. Despite the risks she faced discussing the conditions in the facility, she said:
Can you believe that they have us living like this? There are no showers working [in the transitional center] and the sewage is coming through every opening. It’s hot, and it smells like raw sewage. Then they put more people in here, knowing we are over capacity. Three people to a room. Three. How are we all going to wash in a sink? They only did that for that stupid chicken plant. More than half of the people piled up in here work at that devil house, and most of them are hurt. They still have to go through. It doesn’t matter if their hands are hanging off, they better show up or go to the hole [solitary confinement]. I tell them, let’s fight! You know, stand up for ourselves, but they are scared. Truthfully, I’m scared, but I’m also tired. Girl, when they come from work, they smell just like raw chicken, so it mixes with the sewage smell and the heat. I finally understand what people felt like on those slave ships. I can’t wait to be free.
More Forms of Worker Exploitation
While in the prison’s general population, the GDC does not pay you for your work. Although incarcerated people labor at warehouses where products are exported, and large profits are being collected. While on the transitional side of prison, people leave the compound to work extremely long hours, only to have their wages turned over to GDC to determine what portion is owed to the prison. Most times, the prison retains at least 40 percent of all earnings. What is left of the worker’s pay is deposited into a high-interest bank account.
On the transitional side, the majority of people in the workforce labor in the poultry plants. Plants get access to a guaranteed workforce without having to worry about workers’ well-being. Workers are expected to be prompt, have subservient attitudes, and little to nothing to say. They must cheerfully endure being exploited, including through unsolicited sexual contact with management or plant staff. Being fired or quitting means they are shipped back to the prison’s general population after being locked up for months in solitary confinement for insubordination.
Incarcerated workers must work through inclement weather (even when other employees need not), hardships, and even through injuries, which are often neglected. Worker’s compensation isn’t really an option. According to the article from The Marshall Project, Why Incarcerated Poultry Workers Deserve Better:
Our investigation also turned up 24 incidents in which prisoners were injured at poultry plants in Georgia and North Carolina since 2015. They were cut by knives and burned with chemicals on their skin and in their eyes. They also reported pain in their hands — a symptom of the kinds of musculoskeletal disorders that frequently afflict poultry workers. In some cases, we obtained emails showing that company officials were reluctant to properly address the injuries.
It is big business to exploit workers in this country. The biggest form of labor exploitation is mass incarceration, the new-aged slavery. The populations of prisons and jails are disproportionately people of color; therefore, more people from communities of color are exploited on the job.
The problem of industries colluding with the GDC is only getting worse with the privatization of prisons in America. Our country has fewer people than some other countries, yet more people are incarcerated here than in all other countries.
According to the article, The Prison Industry in the United States: Big Business or a New Form of slavery?:
Statistics reveal that the United States holds 25% of the world’s prison population, but only 5% of the world’s people. From less than 300,000 inmates in 1972, the jail population grew to 2 million by the year 2000. In 1990 it was one million. Ten years ago, there were only five private prisons in the country, with a population of 2,000 inmates; now, there are 100, with 62,000 inmates. It is expected that by the coming decade, the number will hit 360,000, according to reports.
According to these figures, poultry plants and other big businesses will be able to revert 360,000 people to slavery. The Constitution’s 13th Amendment makes this egregious exploitation possible. It says: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
As a human being, how does that sit with you?