Poultry plant under fire over work environment

HAZLEHURST, Miss. (AP) — A union representing workers at a Sanderson Farms chicken-processing plant contends the company has created an unsafe, racially-insensitive work environment at the facility.

The Clarion-Ledger reports (http://on.thec-l.com/R0FTzW ) officials with Collins-based Laborers International Union of North America Local 693 are calling on the Laurel-based poultry producer to create safer working conditions at the plant and to treat its workers with more respect.

"(Sanderson Farms) has more pride in their product than they do their people," said Sherri Jones, a field representative for the union. "This is 2012, and things need to change."

Jones and others told reporters Friday that employees work in an environment where indoor temperatures can top 100 degrees during the summer without adequate air conditioning and there aren't enough water or bathroom breaks.

"There was no air. It was hot. It was nasty," said Chris Jefferson, who worked at the plant for four years before being fired, he says, for confronting a supervisor over working conditions.

"They never sprayed down anything. I would almost pass out," the Hazlehurst resident said.

The company refused comment on the accusations, including claims that a white supervisor told a black employee that the plant's workers were considered "slaves."

The plant employs about 700 people, but Jones said not all are union members.

Organizers of Friday's news conference displayed several photographs of what they described as cut arms and calloused, swollen hands of workers who suffer "repetitive-motion" injuries on the job while cutting and processing as many as 200,000 chickens per day.

The fast-paced production means workers are prone to injury and can't work as effectively, said Tennie White, an environmental consultant for the Coalition of Communities for Environmental Justice, a Hattiesburg nonprofit network that addresses various social issues.

"Put more people on the line if you're going to process 200,000 chickens," she said.

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