Politics of Poverty

Doing the tasks that nobody else will do

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Through his work working with the Greater Minnesota Worker Center in St Cloud, Ahmed has been supporting the Somali refugee community. Here, he attends a rally outside the Case Farms poultry plant in Morganton, NC, where workers hail from Guatemala and Laos. (Photo: Mary Babic / Oxfam America)

The poultry industry has a long history of tapping vulnerable populations to do the jobs that no one else will do. The latest workforce targeted to work in these arduous and exhausting conditions? Refugees.

In a recent piece on refugees in the poultry industry, The New York Times hit on some hard truths about working in the industrialized food system in the US. The jobs are so gruesome that employers are desperate for workers – and that frequently leads them to refugee communities, where people are often desperate for work.

There’s a certain logic to this. Poultry processing falls under the rubric of 3D work: dirty, dangerous, and difficult. A poultry plant is by nature an extraordinarily harsh environment: cold, wet, slippery, loud, and awash in chemicals, animal fat, and blood. It’s also grisly (hanging live animals on shackles and trimming skin off carcasses). And, since it’s an industrial operation, the lines move relentlessly: each person stands at a post for hours on end, doing the same motion thousands of times a day.

Add low pay and long hours to this, and you have a job few people are willing to do. In fact, the industry has a history of tapping “a variety of economically desperate and socially isolated populations.” Over the years, the workforce has been dominated first by women (white, then African American), then immigrants (first from Latin America, then from other countries such as Laos and Haiti), until, increasingly today, refugees from a variety of countries (South Sudan, Somalia, Burma, Rwanda, Liberia).

Today, you can drive for hours into the heart of rural America, and drop into small towns that have been transformed by refugees. They come in search of safety and ready to work to build a better life, and thereby, to find dignity, freedom, and prosperity.

However, the reality they find often does not live up to the promise.

Seth, who was born in a refugee camp in Ethiopia after his family fled strife in South Sudan, found his way to Nebraska after moving through Kenya, New York, and Iowa; he works with refugees today, and helps them find their way to understanding the language, the system, the community. He sums up the precarious reality:

St. Cloud, MN is one of the coldest, flattest, and – until recently – most insular cities in the country. Since the poultry industry has attracted workers from the large Somali refugee community in Minnesota, the city has seen some dramatic changes. Here, a Somali woman demonstrates the motion she repeats thousands of times a day while working at the poultry plant, from 11pm to 8am. (Photo: Mary Babic / Oxfam America)

“The companies clearly do not care, because there’s countless times you’re told that there’s so many other folks that will get your job, in case you left, in case you complained, or in case you felt it was not the right place for you to be, there was someone in line. They would tell us this. So you are held in fear, so you don’t want to express yourself, and first of all expressing yourself is difficult because they do not have time for folks who can’t express themselves, and the reason you can’t express yourself is because English is not your first language.”

Second class citizens in a strange land

Refugees are a good match for the poultry industry. Much of it comes down to one element not in the 3D classification: the climate of fear. The industry is able to treat workers with disregard because they are afraid to stand up, speak out, and take action.

Refugees are in the US legally with authorization to work, which makes it simple for plants to hire them; but their situation also makes it possible to pressure them into working long, hard, awkward hours. Many refugees, having endured excruciatingly difficult circumstances at home, and on the journey, are wary and exhausted – and worried. They’re frightened of being sent back, of not earning money to send to their home country, of getting in trouble with the law.

Seth notes, “People stay in jobs at the expense of their health and well-being, because they have responsibilities to their families. Even though they know what the company is doing is wrong, they put up with a lot of conditions that are unacceptable.”

Many refugees don’t yet speak English, and the plants rarely provide translators. As one Somali man notes, “A lot of people don’t understand their rights or the law. They worry about getting a job somewhere else… [Company mangers / owners] injure people, fire them, blame them, say it’s their fault… it’s impossible to file legal action, you’ll go three years without resolution… you can’t work while waiting, so you don’t pursue it.” Many workers rely on translators provided at the plant, and they suspect that “the interpreter tells you what they want, and sometimes they lie.”

Moreover, while some communities welcome the new populations, others try to keep the doors closed. Ahmed, executive director of the Greater Minnesota Worker Center, notes that the Somali community in St. Cloud has to cope not just with the shocking climate (in the seventh coldest city in the country), but with overt hostility and xenophobia that takes shape in nasty graffiti, pork hung on doorjambs, epithets thrown at women walking down the street.

The drip of insults and exclusion adds to the sense of isolation and fear. Seth says, “We are in desperate need when it comes to mental health. A lot of us are suffering trauma from home–war trauma–that we carry. And also cultural trauma that folks usually ignore, because really when you’re in a new place, and you’re always reminded of where you’ve come from, there’s issues with that. …And we face racism in the plants. When it comes to racism, we as the immigrant and refugee community have always tried to ignore it. One way that it’s done is by direct mistreatment towards somebody from a refugee or immigrant background, but especially refugee. Direct mistreatment. You’re being given tasks that nobody else is being given. Or you’re being assigned to do things that nobody else is being assigned to do.”

Do these jobs have to be so awful?

While poultry processing is tough work, it’s also true that this terrain is a backdrop. And employers have a lot of room to build on that structure. In fact, a plant could take many steps to make these jobs less arduous and more attractive. Just a few examples: provide healthy compensation (living wages and adequate benefits); reduce the line speed to decrease dangers and injuries; provide better equipment and training… the list goes on.

Instead of making these accommodations, however, the industry has taken a different route in the years since poultry production modernized (starting in the 1950s, and accelerating since the 1980s). These jobs have gotten more 3D, not less. Wages have been on a steady decline (Oxfam estimates that the real value has fallen almost 40 percent since the 1980s; the Times notes that pay has been halved over the past 40 years). Line speed has increased (doubling from 70 birds per minute in 1979 to 140 today); and the industry keeps pressing the USDA to raise the maximum speed even more (recently requesting a top speed of 175, and then asking for removal of limits altogether). The industry has made these moves at the same time that productivity and profits (and executive compensation) have, simply put, soared.

In short, it’s been a “race to the bottom” to increase speed and decrease costs; and workers have become a cheap and disposable part of the process. They’re not regarded as whole human beings, but rather reduced to machine parts–hands, arms, shoulders—which get exhausted and injured. And then, simply, replaced.

Workers across the country describe their situation in the same words, time after time, no matter the language, the company, or the job. The plants regard the workers as robots or machines. A Somali woman in Minnesota notes, “They don’t care about your well-being. They know they can get someone healthy the next day… every single day, they fire a stream of workers and get new workers to come in.” A Mexican woman in Texas says they need to “stop thinking that we’re machines.” A Somali man says, “If you’re injured or sick or in pain, they don’t want you. They’ll just fire you.”

The convenience store across the street from the Case Farms poultry plant in Morganton, NC caters to the workforce that largely hails from other countries: Guatemala, Mexico, Laos. (Photo: Mary Babic / Oxfam America)

But…don’t they want the work?

As the Times piece makes clear, there is a mutually beneficial situation here: employers need people to do 3D jobs, and refugees need jobs that are steady, full-time, and that pay more than minimum wage.

However, even though they are new to the country, these workers enjoy the same rights as all Americans at work. Companies need to adhere to certain standards. They need to provide safe and decent conditions; respect workers’ needs for training, medical care, and workers’ compensation; and ensure that workers are not harassed or discriminated against. They need to ensure workers do not face retaliation for raising concerns about their working conditions.  Tapping into vulnerable populations does not lift these obligations.

There are companies which understand this imperative, and treat workers well (and the same). We are seeing positive movement by some around engaging with workers (and unions) around health and safety and integrating worker issues into their sustainability strategies. They recognize not just the business benefits (which are many), but the benefits to a community, and a country, from honoring the humanity, vitality, and worth of every individual – especially those working hard to make a new home.

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