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January 1997 Volume 3 Number 1

Southeast: Mexican Migrants on the Chicken Trail


The Los Angeles Times on November 10-12, 1996 ran a three-part story on "the chicken trail" -- the recruitment of Latino poultry workers along the US-Mexican border for employment in southeastern states from Arkansas and Missouri to the Carolinas.


The stories profiled Hudson Foods, based in Noel, Missouri, (population 1,169) which paid a south Texas recruiter, B. Chapman & Co., $175 per worker who showed up in Missouri. The workers Chapman recruits make their way north on the "chicken trail" to the converted Ginger Blue hotel in Noel, where they live, along with 135 other migrant poultry workers, for $45 per week per person.


In 1994, Hudson employed about 1,200 workers to process 1.3 million chickens each week in Noel. Entry-level wages are $6.70 per hour. Annual turnover exceeds 100 percent, so that Hudson hires about 50 new workers each month. Hudson prefers network recruiting; the company offers a $300 bonus to current employees who bring new workers to the plant.


Hudson employees in Noel are represented by a union. About 45 percent of the labor force are Latinos. Hudson paid a $20,625 INS fine in 1992.


Hudson, with headquarters in Rogers, Arkansas, has 14 facilities in 11 states, more than 10,000 employees and expects $1.4 billion in sales for 1996. Hudson is the nation's seventh-largest poultry producer.


The reporter-worker described the wet, 47-degree temperature inside the plant, the semi-automated "dis-assembly" line and the lack of training for newly hired workers. The number of broiler chickens processed in the US each year has more than doubled, from three billion per year in the early 1970s to seven billion per year in the mid-1990s.


Hudson's human resources director was quoted as saying: "there's a large number of jobs that very few citizens in the US want to do, but they're there and they need to be done...One of the social goods the poultry industry provides is employing people who would otherwise have a great deal of trouble getting employed."


The labor recruiting company travels to industry shows in search of employers seeking unskilled labor and then offers to recruit workers for these companies. According to the reporter, the recruiting company checks workers' identification cards and takes urine samples for drug tests. As the workers traveled north through Texas, the Border Patrol checked the Greyhound passengers identification cards in Falfurrias, about 75 miles north of the Mexican border.


The motel owner in Noel bought the run-down hunting lodge motel for $220,000 and reopened it to house migrant chicken workers in 1994. Because poultry work is considered nonfarm work, it is not subject to special farm worker housing inspection, only normal local health and safety screening. The motel takes every new Hudson worker to apply for Food Stamps at the local welfare agency, the Division of Family Services. The number of Latinos receiving Food Stamps in Noel increased from 35 per month in 1993 to 375 per month in 1996.


Hudson is the economic linchpin of Noel, Missouri, but the plant, just outside city limits, pays no property taxes to the city. The number of Latino students in Noel's elementary school rose from 25 to more than 100. Hudson and nearby Simmons Foods contributed $12,000 to Noel schools in 1996.


The final article in the series asserted that, across rural and small town America, jobs that "used to offer working-class security to a local population" are now filled by Latino immigrants at lower wages and under conditions that encourage high turnover. Some of the Latino workers and their families will settle and the article concluded that towns without traffic lights and ATMs are not well equipped to deal with bilingual education, overcrowded housing and racial tensions.


The INS has been active in the poultry belt across the southeast. In Arkansas, eight employers with 36 plants and factories--half poultry processing operations owned by Tyson Foods-- are participating in the INS' computerized electronic verification pilot program that has employers checking the A-numbers of newly-hired non-US citizens to determine if the workers are authorized to work in the US.


The Laborers' International Union of North America asked the US Department of Labor to investigate the Case Farms Poultry Plant in North Carolina. The 450 largely Guatemalan immigrant workers' voted 238 to 183 in a July 1995 election to be represented by the Laborers' Union. Case is appealing a March 7, 1996 NLRB order to begin to bargain with LIUNA.


Foreign-born workers are reportedly seeking jobs in construction, on tobacco farms and in meat and poultry plants in Kentucky. In October, 1996, the INS won its first conviction of a Kentucky employer, the Valley Fresh chicken-processing plant in Glasgow, for knowingly hiring illegal alien workers. Wages were $5 hourly.


In September, 1996, Kentucky police stopped a rented truck taking 31 illegal aliens to North Carolina, but the short-staffed INS told the police to let the truck continue its journey.


In Robertson County, Tennessee, tobacco farmers were advised not to hire workers through labor contractors to avoid hiring unauthorized workers. In 1995, 75 Tennessee farmers hired 387 workers through the H-2A program, up from 60 farmers taking in 287 workers in FY94.


There are reportedly 25,000 to 50,000 Latinos in Davidson County, Tennessee surrounding Nashville, which has a three percent unemployment rate. Some 118 illegal aliens were apprehended in September 1996.


A farm labor contractor and three of his employees were indicted in November 1996 for smuggling Guatemalan and Mexican workers to South Carolina and then using death threats and physical abuse to get them to harvest cucumbers in 1992. Contractor Miguel Angel Flores, a Mexican national, provided workers to South Carolina farmers growing picking cucumbers and to Florida orange growers since the late 1980s.


Workers were told they were not free to leave the camps until they paid off the smuggling fees by working in the fields.


Many of the illegal workers harvested sweet potatoes. North Carolina, with 35,000 acres, and Louisiana, with 23,000 acres, account for two-thirds of US sweet potato production. Americans consumed an average 4.5 pounds of sweet potatoes per person in 1995.


Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, charged that the INS raids on Delmarva poultry farms in the summer of 1996 were politically inspired efforts by the Clinton administration to show that it was being tough on illegal immigration.


About 200 illegal immigrants were detained after raids at Allen Family Foods Inc. poultry plants in Cordova and Hurlock and at Angelica Nurseries Inc. in Kennedyville. The majority of the workers, mainly from Mexico and Guatemala, returned voluntarily to their homelands within 72 hours of the August and September raids.




Kristen Hallam, "Economic refugees dive into labor pool," Nashville Banner, December 9, 1996. Mark Barrett, "Immigration in WNC Up, But Still Small," Asheville Citizen-Times, December 8, 1996. "Farm Contractor Charged With Holding Migrant Workers in Involuntary Servitude," Daily Labor Report, November 18, 1996. Jesse Katz, "The Chicken Trail: New Migrant Trails Take Latinos to Remote Towns," Los Angeles Times, November 10-12, 1996. James Bock, "Immigration raids called politically motivated," Baltimore Sun, October 31, 1996.

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