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October 2021, Volume 27, Number 4

Meat and Migrants

US meatpackers process 9.3 billion chickens, 34 million head of cattle, 130 million hogs, and 2.2 million sheep and lambs each year. Meatpacking has consolidated so that a handful of major firms, JBS, Tyson, Cargill and National Beef, account for 80 percent of US beef processing, JBS, Tyson, Smithfield and Hormel account for 70 percent of US pork processing, and JBS, Tyson, Perdue and Sanderson for over half of US chicken processing.

Chicken. In August 2019, a class action suit was filed against 18 chicken processors, accusing them of colluding since 2009 to depress the wages of their largely immigrant employees in 200 US processing plants (Jien et al v Perdue Farms). Survey firm Agri Stats was accused of sharing data that allowed employers to fix the wages of chicken processing workers below levels in other food manufacturing.

Human Resource executives met at the annual US Poultry & Egg Association’s Human Resources Seminar and agreed to standardize processing worker wages. By reporting wages and benefits to Agri Stats and WMS, plant managers could see what their competitors were paying. A third of the 250,000 chicken processing workers are represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers union, but union wages are not significantly higher than non-union wages.

A federal judge refused to dismiss the workers’ suit in March 2021, which prompted chicken processors to settle. JBS’s Pilgrim’s Pride, which accounts for about 15 percent of US chicken, agreed to pay $29 million to workers in July 2021.

Cargill and Continental Grain Company in August 2021 bought the third-largest poultry processor, Sanderson Farms, for $4.5 billion. Tyson accounts for about 20 percent of US poultry processing and Pilgrim’s Pride has a 16 percent share. The new Sanderson-Wayne Farms entity will account for 15 percent of US poultry processing, giving the Big Three over half of US poultry processing.

Tyson Foods has 120,000 US employees, including a third who are represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers union. Less than half were vaccinated in August 2021, prompting Tyson to require that all employees be vaccinated by November 2021. The mandate worked: in October 2021, Tyson reported that over 90 percent of its employees were vaccinated.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration proposed $1 million in fines in July 2021 against four firms involved in installing and operating the liquid nitrogen freezer system at a Foundation Food Group poultry plant in Georgia that exploded in January 2021, killing six workers. OSHA described the violations as willful and levied the maximum fines; critics said that fines should have been even higher. The families of the dead workers are suing the four firms involved; three of the four firms are appealing the OSHA fines.

The prices of meat, poultry and eggs rose three times faster than the prices of fruits and vegetables between summer 2019 and summer 2021, prompting the Biden Administration to consider antitrust actions against meat firms. Some poultry firms settled with retailers and restaurants as well as farmers who grow broilers for them without admitting that they conspired to fix prices.

Biden is taking special aim at poultry because it is the most vertically integrated meat industry, with processors supplying chicks and feed to farmers and processing their chickens. Most processors operate a tournament system that rewards growers whose chickens add meat fastest and penalize those whose chickens grow slower.

Europe. Many meatpackers rely on staffing firms who recruit Eastern Europeans to work in Dutch and German plants. FlexWork Payrolling provides Romanians for Dutch Vion, offering them E1,800 a month and low-cost housing. However, some of the Romanian migrants complain that they were paid less than promised and that the housing provided was substandard.

The Netherlands is the largest EU meat exporter, sending most of its meat exports to Germany and the UK. Of the 800,000 migrants in the country in 2019, half were employed directly and half were employed by some of the estimated 20,000 temp agencies in the country. Migrants from Eastern Europe are believed to be 60 percent of the 12,000 employees of Dutch meatpacking plants, and they are paid less than more skilled Dutch workers who are employees of the plants where they work.

The temp agencies are often operated by nationals of the country in which workers are recruited who have settled in the Netherlands. Agencies provide jobs as well as housing, transport and wage advances, so workers become very dependent on them. After agency abuses came to light during the covid pandemic in Germany in 2020, the government required meatpackers to hire their employees directly.

The Dutch Algemene Bond Uitzendondernemingen (ABU) that represents 500 large agencies that account for two-thirds of the country’s temp employment aims to head off more regulation with a code of fair employment.

Some 63 percent of California voters supported Prop 12 in 2018, the Farm Animal Confinement Proposition that was placed on the ballot by the Humane Society and requires calves, chickens and pigs to have more space in order to sell their meat and eggs in California after January 1, 2022. As a result of Prop 12, the prices of eggs, pork and veal are expected to increase by up to $50 per household per year.

Most rural counties lost population between 2010 and 2020. The population of North Carolina’s Bladen County, which has a Smithfield Foods plant in Tar Heel, fell by 16 percent over the decade. The population of North Carolina’s Bertie County, which has a large Perdue Farms poultry plant, also fell by 16 percent.

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