How Workers And Faith-Based Investors Are Uniting To Stop Child Labor

Food & Drink

The food industry is grappling with the growing prevalence of child labor. Many Republican-led states continue to weaken child labor protections. Meanwhile, major food brands face new pressures from shareholders and advocates to build more fair and dignified supply chains. At a recent Tyson Foods
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shareholder meeting, workers and faith-based investors demanded the corporation perform a full audit into illegal child labor in its supply chain. While the proposal fell short of the necessary votes, advocates continue to push for change.

We spoke with Magaly Licolli, the Founder and Executive Director of Venceremos, a worker-led community organization based in Springdale, Arkansas to get more context on these issues.

Errol Schweizer: Please give us a quick introduction of what Venceremos is doing in Arkansas.

Magaly Licolli: Venceremos was founded in 2019, before the pandemic started. When the pandemic hit the U.S., we really didn’t have any other option but to organize and mobilize the community and the workers. We are based here in Springdale. This is the home of Tyson Foods. We work a lot with Tyson workers. And for the past years, we’ve been mobilizing the workers. Last year, workers went on a strike for a full week. And we were supporting those workers, too.

ES: Can you give us a quick rundown of who Tyson Foods is?

ML: Tyson is one of the biggest meat companies in the US. They are based here in Springdale. And the thing that I can tell you here, living in the same place where they are based, is that they have a lot of community control. They control a lot of the narratives in the community by providing charities, to nonprofits, to schools, to churches, and even the university, so they can really engage directly with the community to overshadow, to silence the voice of the workers.

ES: Who are the workers at these Tyson plants? What are their lives like?

ML: The majority of the workers here in northwest Arkansas are Latino, from Mexico, from El Salvador, from Puerto Rico. But we also have a large population of Marshallese. They come from the Marshall Islands. The U.S. used their islands to test bombs and allowed those people to come to work in the U.S.

It’s not like Arkansas is a state that welcomes immigrants or refugees. But we know that the poultry industry is one of the main industries in in Arkansas. And they need vulnerable workers. They need workers that don’t know their rights, that don’t know how to speak or write English. They are afraid of speaking up. They’re pretty isolated, working in these plants. So, in the last year we’ve seen how the state is allowing kids to work in the industry, which is very concerning for us because we know the dangers of working in these plants. The hazards, the exposure to accidents that workers face daily. And we know this is not a place for kids to work.

ES: What has it been like these last couple of years to work in these plants?

ML: It has definitely been really hard. I’ve been working directly with workers for the past nine years, and I can tell you that the situation got worse since the pandemic started. We saw a lot of workers dying during the pandemic, and production increased during and after the pandemic. A lot of workers are having issues with carpal tunnel syndrome because of the repetitive motion. The line speed was allowed to increase in certain plants from 145 chickens per minute to 174 chickens per minute. Workers are working shoulder to shoulder processing and cutting the wings, the legs, the rest of the chicken. So that means that workers have to do a cut 40 times per minute. They have to use knives, saws. And sometimes the complaint is that they are not sharp enough and so they have to put more force whenever they are trying to cut. The workers in this department are pretty much seen as machines. They are they are not allowed to go to the bathroom until someone is replaced by another worker. But if there are not enough workers, there is no chance for them to go to the bathroom. They have been forced to wear diapers because of not being granted bathroom breaks.

ES: What can you tell me about the child labor shareholder proposal and what happened with it?

ML: This is a pretty concerning situation for workers and people here in the community because we have seen the Department of Labor expose where kids were found working inside the chicken plants. Some of them were Tyson’s plants, where the kids were hired to clean the machinery. And also last year, the state of Arkansas rolled back their child labor protections. And so Tyson has been really quiet about that. They say they have zero tolerance for child labor, but they are not doing enough to protect kids in the community. And we also encountered some kids working in the chicken farms. And that is very concerning because obviously these kids are being hired by contractors that are being paid by these companies like Tyson.

The investors are also concerned about this situation. And they proposed to do an audit, to really evaluate the extent of how many kids are working within their supply chain. Because Tyson, for the past year, they’ve been really denying and not taking any responsibility. They are not doing anything to set higher standards to prevent kids from working within their supply chain.

The investors proposed to do this audit, but Tyson didn’t really take it very well. They defeated the proposal. But among the voting, even though the proposal received only 12% of the votes, it got 54% of the independent votes of investors. And so, that speaks a lot about how people really are trying to push Tyson to do better. But Tyson is still denying or not taking responsibility to prevent this from happening in the future.

ES: What is next on pushing for accountability?

ML: We are talking with investors, with the faith leaders, because obviously a large number of those investors come from different congregations. So we are trying to organize more faith leaders to support the workers.

Tyson claims to be a Christian company, that they have Christian values. And so the investors, these religious faith leaders, are pushing Tyson. But Tyson is pretty much cutting the conversations with them. They are not really listening to the faith leaders that are trying to improve the company’s practices.

ES: Could you tell us a bit more about your organizing model?

ML: For us, centering the voice of the workers in the work is crucial. They know the solutions to those problems that often the company really doesn’t want to listen to. The company keeps seeing them as if they don’t have enough education or if they are expendable. But really, workers are the experts on the jobs and they know the hazards and how to prevent accidents. So for us it also has been crucial to learn from workers who have been on the ground organizing for many more years.

In regards to it’s shareholder proposal, American Baptist Home Mission Society (ABHMS), stated: “As a faith-based institution, the American Baptist Home Mission Society is committed to advancing human rights and racial equity in our Common Investment Fund portfolio companies. The recent revelations of illegal middle school child labor in Tyson’s plants performing and being injured from hazardous cleaning duties combined with the allegations of vulnerable immigrant children catching chickens on Tyson’s contracted chicken farms, are unacceptable. As long-term investors with Tyson, we demand that the Company effectively investigate these matters and provide remedy to the affected children.”

Tyson Foods maintains that it is a “faith-friendly” company and only works with business partners that do not tolerate child or forced labor in it’s supply chain.

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