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July 2011, Volume 17, Number 3

Meatpacking and Immigration

Meatpacking is the largest manufacturing employer in rural America. About 60 percent of the almost 500,000 employees in the animal slaughtering and processing industry (NAICS 3116) are in nonmetro areas. Meatpacking has also been the target of government efforts to restrict the employment of unauthorized workers, beginning with Operation Vanguard in 1999-00, with workplace raids between 2006 and 2008, and with I-9 audits since.

Vanguard. Under Operation Vanguard, the then INS subpoenaed records from meatpacking plants, compared employee I-9 information against SSA and INS records, and instructed employers to ask employees who appeared to be unauthorized to clear up discrepancies in their records before INS agents came to the plant to interview them; most of the suspect workers quit. During the plant visits, the INS interviewed only workers already identified as potentially unauthorized.

Vanguard was attacked by meatpackers, farmers, unions and Hispanic groups, prompting the INS headquarters to order its suspension.

Nebraska's governor appointed a task force to study the effects of immigration enforcement on the livestock slaughtering industry as well as the effect of immigration on Nebraska's education, housing and the justice systems. The task force issued 14 recommendations in October 2000, including a recommendation against a resumption of Vanguard and advocating an amnesty for unauthorized foreigners in the state. INS leaders acquiesced, prompting INS District Director Jerry Heinauer to say: "It's unfortunate that we're unable to go to a second and third phase of Vanguard - which would have had us going back to the plants on a couple of occasions."

Raids. On December 12, 2006, Immigration and Customs Enforcement mounted its largest-ever workplace raid, using over 1,000 agents to inspect workers at six plants owned by Swift; some 1,282 workers of the 7,000 workers employed on the day shift in these plants were arrested. Then-ICE director Julie Meyers said: "The action should send a clear message to employers: Hiring illegal workers is not acceptable."

Both Swift and the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represented workers at five of the six plants, denounced the raids, as did migrant advocates. The UFCW complained that: "Worksite raids are not an effective form of immigration reform. They terrorize workers and destroy families." Swift raised wages, intensified recruiting, and returned to full operation within six months, but its financial condition was weakened, and Brazilian-based JBS bought Swift in 2007.

Some of the replacement workers hired by Swift were Somali Muslim refugees who demanded that Swift accommodate their need to pray and eat at the end of the day during Ramadan. In September 2008, Swift fired some of the Somali Muslims at Greeley when they walked outside the plant to break their Ramadan fasts, prompting the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to sue Swift in August 2010 for discrimination on the basis of religion. Swift asked that the EEOC suit be dismissed, but a federal court in June 2011 allowed it to proceed despite the fact that United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7, which represents Greeley plant workers, is not a party to the suit (Swift argued that any accommodation given Somali Muslims could affect other plant employees).

Crider Inc, a poultry processor in Stillmore, Georgia, lost about 75 percent of its 900-strong work force when ICE agents visited its plant on Labor Day weekend in 2006. Crider responded by raising wages and asking the state Employment Service to refer jobless workers; it hired 200 of the 400 job seekers sent by the ES. Crider also used Peacock Poultry to recruit Black workers in rural areas of Georgia, and offered out-of-area workers housing in Crider-owned dorms in Stillmore. However, the Black workers soon complained about what they considered low pay and poor working conditions, prompting Crider's president to say that he preferred Hispanics because "We want people who want to work and are willing to work every day."

Blacks had been 70 percent of Crider workers in the mid-1990s. Their share of Crider workers fell to 15 percent before the raids in 2006, when wages were $6 an hour. Blacks were 65 percent of Crider workers in Fall 2006, when wages were $7 to $9 an hour, but there were disputes between Peacock and the workers they recruited over pay, especially because Peacock cashed worker paychecks, leaving them with cash but no documentation of their hours or earnings. When workers thought they were not paid for all the hours they worked, they had no proof.

Crider was able to find replacement workers after it raised wages, but they were not as "good" as the migrants they replaced. With supervisors treating the Black workers in the same way they treated migrants, there were soon disputes and high turnover.

I-9. Turkey processor West Liberty Foods ( in May 2011 became the first Iowa firm to enroll in the ICE Mutual Agreement between Government and Employers (IMAGE), which involves ICE agents reviewing an employer's I-9 forms and training Human Resources employees in how to detect false documents. West Liberty Foods employs almost 1,900 workers in Iowa and Utah. Over half of West Liberty's 3,700 residents are Hispanic.

FLSA. A perennial issue in meat and poultry processing is compensation for time spent "donning and doffing" protective clothing, including ear plugs, hair nets, smocks and steel-toed rubber boots. Delmarva-based Mountaire did not pay poultry processing workers for donning and doffing time, and was sued by employees under the Fair Labor Standards Act.

A federal district court agreed with the employees that they should have been paid for donning and doffing before and after the work shift. The Fourth Circuit in June 2011 upheld that decision, concluding that putting on and taking off protective equipment was an "integral and indispensable part" of an employee's principal work activities and done for the employer's benefit. As a result of the ruling, Mountaire will have to compensate its employees for an additional 10.2 minutes a day which, at $10 an hour, means an extra $425 a year for a typical production worker.