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April 2018, Volume 24, Number 2

Meat and Migrants

Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents raided meatpacker Southeastern Provision in Bean Station, Tennessee in April 2018 and arrested 97 unauthorized workers, including 10 on federal criminal charges; 32 were later released. Migrant rights groups said that the ICE Southeastern raid was the largest since 2006-07.

The Washington Post on March 5, 2018 reviewed the December 12, 2006 immigration raids on Swift & Company meatpacking plants and their aftermath in Cactus, Texas. Over 1,200 unauthorized workers among the 7,000 who were employed were arrested. JBS bought floundering Swift & Company in 2007.

After the raids, Swift and many other meatpacking plants switched from hiring unauthorized foreigners to hiring refugees. Today, the Cactus, Texas JBS plant has a workforce that is half refugees and half Hispanic immigrants earning $17 an hour. Many Cactus workers live 13 miles south in Dumas to avoid the smell of a plant where up to 5,000 cows a day are slaughtered.

Meatpacking has often offered last-resort jobs for Americans and first jobs for newcomers with limited English and skills. Worker turnover is high, and most meatpacking plants are constantly recruiting newcomers, offering current workers bonuses of up to $500 if they bring in new workers who stay on the job from 60 days to six months.

East Coast Labor Solutions, profiled by the New York Times April 2, 2018, finds refugees, Puerto Ricans, and others willing to fill meatpacking jobs. Candidates must be legally authorized to work and pass a drug test, and be willing to move to areas with meatpacking plants. East Coast helps new hires find places to live and advances them money for rent that is repaid from wages; the new hires are employees of East Coast for up to a year until their loans are repaid. East Coast began working with Burmese refugees in 2008.

Meatpacking jobs became less attractive in the 1970s and 1980s, when urbanized meatpacking plants in cities closed and new non-union plants opened in rural areas. Wages today of $12 an hour are about half what they were in 1980, adjusted for inflation.

USDA has approved speeding up poultry dis-assembly lines to 175 birds a minute, and is considering a proposal to allow hog plants to remove the current maximum rate of 18 a minute. USDA says that poultry plants with the faster line speeds have less salmonella contamination, and expects similar decreases in salmonella contamination with faster hog lines. Workers are to do some of the inspection work now done by USDA inspectors.

Worker advocates say that faster dis-assembly lines increase injuries among workers. One plant that now processes 8,000 hogs a day with 800 workers hopes to expand processing to 20,000 a day with a second shift and more workers.

Iowa and other midwestern states have more job openings than unemployed workers; the unemployment rate in North Dakota, Nebraska, and Iowa is less than three percent. Midwestern states are losing people to other states and not attracting many immigrants, suggesting that lack of workers rather than lack of skills makes it hard for employers to fill jobs.

Elkart, Indiana, the recreational-vehicle (RV) capital of the world, is an example of a labor-short midwestern city. In March 2009, Elkart's unemployment rate was 20 percent; in early 2018, it was two percent. The city of 50,000 attracts 25,000 workers daily from nearby towns, many to work in the RV industry that employs 12 percent of lcoal workers.

US RV sales were 150,000 in 2009, and 500,000 in 2017. Many RV factories prefer to hire workers rather than automate because the capital for automation becomes a fixed costs in an industry where sales fluctuate.