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DeBeaked Chickens And An Anti-Bullying Policy

Updated on June 25, 2014

It seems to me factory workers and factory hens have a great deal in common....both are constrained is a system.

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Old MacDonald.

Old MacDonald had his own farm, with chickens, a cat, a dog and a whole variety of other animals useful for doing work and providing food. Young MacDonald, in contrast, has a highly specialised food production facility that is part of a global corporation.

The changes that has taken place in farming over the last century are mind-boggling. Today, we could forgive our children for failing to understand the relevance of Old MacDonald's nursery rhyme.

A century ago, farmers often kept a few chickens as a way of providing a varied diet for their families and then have a few eggs to sell at market each week. Today, egg farming is a highly scientific and technical production process.

A few years ago, not long after coming to Canada from the U.K., I took a job in an egg processing plant. I was not employed directly by the company, but by an employment agency.

My job was as night-shift sanitation of the plant, it was hard work but I found it fascinating.

During my 6 months there (that was all my aging body could physically manage) I saw parallels between to factory workers that processed the eggs and the factory hens that laid them.

The root cause of debeaking.

Old MacDonald's chickens had it tough. They spent life scratching around for food, sleeping in a cold, dark, drafty barn and always at risk of being eaten by a predators. But they were free. Old MacDonald's hens produced eggs as part of their natural being.

Young MacDonald's chickens have it easy. An abundant supply of food and water and a safe, clean and temperature controlled environment 24/7. Not a predator in sight. But they are captive, constrained. Young MacDonald's hens are forced to produce eggs according to a predetermined scientific and mechanistic process. They have no say in the way they live or do their work.

Constrained hens suffer a great deal of stress in their captivity, they cannot behave like a chicken that is free. Factory hens become aggressive and violent, they will attack each other and may become cannibalistic, literally biting and devouring one another.

To combat this behaviour, factory hens are "debeaked".

Debeaking is the partial (often permanent) removal of both the top and bottom beak. This process is a perfect picture of solving a problem without in any way dealing with the root cause.

My experience at the egg processing plant.

Nightshift sanitation work at the egg processing plant was an amazing experience. The plant was new and contained the most sophisticated machinery of its type. The plant could easily process 250,000 eggs per 16-hour work day. During the busiest time of year (the run up to Christmas week) that figure might reach 350,000 eggs.

It was looking at the "sea of eggs" waiting to be processed that got me asking questions about where all these eggs came from and how they were produced. This is how I found out about battery hens, the factory farming methods used in egg production and the debeaking process.

It is worthwhile to note that it is the "work-related stress" caused to hens in the factory egg farms that has helped begin a movement for "free range" egg production, taking away their stress and the need for debeaking.

Around the same time, I heard about fights breaking out between some of the factory workers.

Coming in each night at 9pm to start cleaning, it wasn't difficult to tell what kind of day production staff had; if there were broken eggs and egg liquid splattered all over the place it was pretty obvious that things had not gone well.

Causes of work-related stress at the egg processing factory.

I need to begin by briefly describing the kind of supply chain the egg processing factory was part of. Our main customers were huge bakeries, the kind of bakeries that made fresh bread, pastries, muffins and cakes for millions of people to consume on a daily basis. We supplied these food factories with liquid egg products on a precisely-timed schedule, with no margin for error. A late delivery from us had the potential to bring our customers' production facility to a complete stop.

What I want to convey here is the magnitude of "pressure" to perform that would come from our customers through our sales and transport departments, through our production management team to the production supervisors then the company's permanent staff and eventually all the way "down" to the production agency workers.

The word I would use to describe the work environment for the agency workers in production is "brutal".

What I noticed were the following:

  • No formal assessment of competencies before being assigned into a task.
  • No training (I do not consider being told and shown what to do once or twice training).
  • Communication between workers almost impossible (many staff were not native English speakers).
  • Teamwork and problem-solving skills between team members non-existent.
  • Ruthless and dictatorial management style.
  • Workers constantly reminded that poor performance would mean loss of job (new agency workers seen on a daily basis at times).

This kind of work environment put the agency workers under tremendous pressure, they were effectively working in a "pressure cooker". As the temperature went up, so to speak, there could only be one outcome. Sooner or later something had to "blow".

It was the busy run up to Christmas week that things came to a head and in just a few days several fights broke out between agency workers. They began behaving just like the chickens in the factory farms.

So the workers too, were "debeaked".


Anti-bullying policy.

Within a day or two of these fights between agency production workers, the company introduced an anti-bullying policy. We were all "trained" and then we signed an agreement to abide by the policy. This was our "debeaking".

Just like the chickens in the egg farm factory, the egg processing factory workers "stress" remained. Just like the chickens, the workers' problems were not solved, the root causes of their behaviour were not addressed.

Perhaps what the egg processing factory should have considered is:

  • Assessing agency workers' before assigning tasks.
  • Quality training that met the needs of agency workers (enabled them to become competent workers).
  • Provision of English language courses.
  • Leadership skills development for managers and supervisors.

Unlike the chickens, I have yet to find anyone in positions of power and authority advocating for improved work conditions for agency workers. As long as the basic requirements of the law are met (Health and Safety, Terms of Employment and so on) then it seems to me people "at the top" don't really care too much about agency workers.

People doing this type of agency work job help governments' keep their unemployment figures down. My guess is a growing number of these workers are also good for the pharmaceutical industry.

Medication for stress and depression is a growing business.


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