Today, an important lawsuit was filed in federal court against Amick Farms alleging that they are undercompensating chicken growers by misclassifying them as independent contractors. Read more about the class action lawsuit, and what it could mean for chicken farmers and the industrialized poultry industry.
While the details of this case will have to be decided in the courts, this lawsuit highlights one of the broader fundamental injustices in the chicken industry today: There is a great imbalance of power between poultry integrators and individual chicken growers.
Despite promises of independence during the recruitment process, integrators control virtually every part of how growers do their job. Integrators control the type of equipment that is used, the expensive upgrades that are required, and the timing of chick and feed deliveries.
Chicken growers do not even own the chickens they raise or the feed they use. There is no right to refuse flocks and no freedom to grow for multiple integrators. In other words, there is nothing “independent” about the work of a contract grower who works for some of today’s largest poultry giants.
In fact, a key federal agency has already come to this conclusion. The Small Business Administration’s Office of Inspector General wrote in a groundbreaking report in 2018:
“The large chicken companies (integrators) in our sample exercised such comprehensive control over the growers…this control was enforced through close integrator oversight, management agreements, and grower-integrator communication. A grower’s failure to comply with these requirements could result in a significant decrease in integrator payments, a reduction in flock placements, or a cancellation of the contract.”
However, despite breaking promises of independence and controlling how growers operate, integrators do not provide the pay or benefits they are obligated to if they want that kind of relationship.
Pay is often below the equivalent of minimum wage and the benefits that are offered to the company’s other employees (healthcare, retirement, life insurance) are denied to growers. Even worse, the integrator forces growers to take out millions of dollars in debt to pay for growing the operation and expensive upgrades to comply with the integrator’s specific methods of raising chickens.
The outcome for growers is stories we hear all too often: bankruptcies, crippling medical debt, lost homes, and life savings destroyed—all while big integrators enjoy record profits and CEO pay.
We hope this lawsuit is the start of a broader discussion about how agribusiness giants are exploiting workers and rural communities. The current system is not working for farmers, consumers, or the security of our country’s food system.
It is past time to ensure the way we produce food in America treats everyone along the supply chain with fairness and dignity—and not just those at the top.