Last week’s ICE raids on chicken slaughter plants in Mississippi raise an issue that traditional media like to ignore. Undocumented immigrants keep the US in cheap meat.
Few to no Americans want slaughterhouse jobs like knockers, stickers, bleeders and tail rippers. In fact, when Smithfield’s slaughterhouse in Tar Heel, NC, offered inmates work release to work at the local slaughterhouse, the inmates said they would rather stay in their cells. Think about that.
A 2008 ICE raid on the Iowa-based slaughterhouse Agriprocessors wiped out almost the whole work force: 296 Guatemalans, 93 Mexicans, two Israelis, and four Ukrainians were arrested. Initial charges against Agriprocessors included harboring illegal aliens, use of child labor, document fraud, identity theft, physical and sexual abuse of workers, unsafe working conditions, wage and hour violations, and shorting workers’ pay.
According to the search warrant, 1,000 discrepancies between worker names and Social Security numbers occurred in three years. There was even a methamphetamine production plant existing within the slaughterhouse, sanctioned by management. Barack Obama, then an Illinois senator, weighed in on the situation during a campaign stop in Davenport, Iowa. “They have kids in there wielding buzz saws and cleavers. It’s ridiculous,” he said
Undaunted after the raid, recruitment firms hired by Agriprocessors canvassed homeless shelters, bus stations, chapel services, and other slaughterhouses, and ran ads in Spanish-language newspapers and on Mexican radio stations in the Rio Grande Valley to replenish the workforce. One recruitment firm, Labor Ready, says it recalled 150 workers, days after placing them, over Agriprocessors’s “safety conditions.”
Years ago, meatpackers JBS Swift, Tyson Foods and Gold’n Plump began hiring Somalis, fleeing civil war, for their slaughterhouse workers. Sudanese and Pacific Islanders also became popular slaughterhouse employees. Employees fleeing poverty and violence, like those from Central American, are willing to accept low wages and no on-the-job protections or worker rights.
Are conservatives who deplore immigrants ready to give up the cheap meat immigrants make possible? Are progressives and clergy who “love” immigrants okay with jobs with no security that regularly cause workers to lose their hands—to keep Americans in cheap meat? (We won’t even talk about what happens to the animals under these conditions.)
Ten years ago, a Texas AgriLife Research study of 5,005 dairy farms estimated that the US economy would suffer an $11 billion loss with the loss of foreign workers. Since then, that number has only grown.
Are Big Food corporations—and the lawmakers who serve them—ready to pay real wages to workers and stop hiring undocumented immigrants while bashing them? Are Americans addicted to cheap meat ready to see how their eating habits support the exploitation of undocumented immigrants? No talk about undocumented immigrants is honest if it leaves out the fact that US slaughterhouses are balanced on their backs.
Martha Rosenberg is a freelance journalist and the author of the highly acclaimed “Born With A Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks and Hacks Pimp The Public Health,” published by Prometheus Books. Check her Facebook page.