Maria Martinez: Sweatshop worker turned organizer
Maria Martinez used to earn between $180 and $200 a week at a poultry processing plant in Delaware. Raising two children on her own, she paid almost $60 a week per child for daycare. She went to her local social services office, but found herself on a long list of people waiting for benefits.
She went to work each day and grew tired of the gruelling conditions. On the assembly line, workers were required to pull 70 chicken livers each minute. Others hung the chickens on hooks for inspection at a rate of 22 per minute. Many of them developed carpel tunnel syndrome because of the constant repeated movements, but few found any recourse or treatment because they did not speak the language and did not know their rights. The required signs in the plant about workers' compensation, minimum wage, overtime pay, and health and safety standards appeared only in English. Undocumented workers stood to even further disadvantage because they could not risk drawing attention to themselves. According to the National Interfaith Committee on Worker Justice, immigrants are the least likely to complain or blow the whistle about working conditions.
When Martinez started to advocate for the United Food and Commercial Workers in her factory, she was offered a desk job instead of her assembly line position. She declined. A very brave choice.
Perdue and Tyson are the biggest chicken producers in the U.S.. They set the market standards, yet neither company has an organized work force. Recently, Perdue was served up a lawsuit which forced them to pay their chicken "catchers" a fair wage. A chicken catcher is one whose job is to actually capture the live chicken to transfer it to the processing plant. These workers suffer health and safety hazards from scratching chickens and contaminated air. Perdue had designated them independent contractors to avoid paying benefits or overtime. The workers sued, and Perdue lost.
Martinez says, "The (poultry) industry is growing, businesses are growing because of us because of our hands. We are the hands that make it grow. We are a hard working people We need immigration laws to protect us." She urged attendees at the USCC conference to become aware of the working conditions in factories in their own hometowns. Many people think that this sort of oppression takes place only in faraway, Third World places, but it happens right here in the U.S. "Most of these workers are Spanish-speaking," she said, "Most of them are Catholic, and you are near to them. Reach out to them."