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"Shattered Promises: Immigrants and Refugees in the Meatpacking Industry"

November 1992 issue of Poverty & Race

In recent years, Hispanic, Asian and African American workers across the nation have been recruited by meatpackers and processors in Iowa, Kansas and Nebraska with promises of good wages, housing and other benefits, only to find many of those promises hollow upon arrival.

Workers have been recruited from Texas and California through state job service offices, newspaper and other advertising, and through aggressive, direct solicitation within immigrant and refugee communities themselves. In some cases, employees are offered cash bonuses to recruit other family members or friends. In packing plants throughout the Midwest, it is not unusual for a majority of the workforce to be comprised of immigrants and refugees, most of whom are non-English speaking and who come from Guatemala, Nicaragua, Brazil, El Salvador, and Mexico, as well as Southeast Asian nations. Language barriers put these workers at tremendous risk and danger in the plants, given the nature of the cutting and processing work they perform. For non-English speaking workers, even with translators on the job, the risks are great. Injury and health problems in Iowa packing plants affect over 43% of the workforce annually, according to the state of Iowa.

The factors behind worker recruitment are varied. The expansion, sheer size and number of meatpacking and processing operations in the Midwest requires large numbers of workers from outside the region. The nation's three largest meat-packers alone -- Iowa Beef Processors (IBP), ConAgra and Cargill -- operate 20 beef and hog slaughter and processing plants in Iowa, Kansas and Nebraska. In addition to the meatpacking industry, the west is seeing a resurgence of poultry and egg-processing industries which also profit through the use of low-wage, often minority, labor. The processing industry is notorious for its exploitative employment practices that commonly lead to high worker turnover rates (exceeding 100% a year in many packing plants). The intersection of race, refugees and poverty in this situation could not be more blatant.

Immigrant, refugee and minority workers who accept such jobs often join the burgeoning ranks of the working poor, experience severe working and living conditions, and not infrequently, outright hostility and racism in the communities in which they locate. For example, in the Fall of 1990, a cross was burned on the lawn of a black packinghouse worker in one Iowa community. In the past year, there have been several race-related attacks against packing workers across the state. In the spring of 1992, Ku Klux Klan symbols appeared in a Waterloo, Iowa packing plant.

Housing has become an issue of primary concern wherever the plants are located. Workers struggle to find adequate, decent housing, and are often forced to commute over 100 miles a day when it is not available locally. Housing discrimination is common. One community resident who assists immigrant packinghouse workers stated that as long as he or another Anglo accompany minority workers in the search for housing, they have little difficulty securing it. If those workers attempt to find housing by themselves, however, the odds are high that it will not be available to them.

Public Costs of Packer Recruitment

Taxpayers bear many of the real costs of poultry and livestock business practices. Relocation, expansion, and operating expenses have often been subsidized by the public. Water subsidies, road construction, property tax abatements, and tax exemptions for related service companies have all been offered as lures to these companies. In Iowa, MP alone has harvested over $6.4 million from the "Iowa Industrial New Jobs Training Program." All told, corporate livestock, poultry and egg processors in Iowa have received over $22 million in public funds since the mid-80s. In Kansas, packers have been given millions by local county officials and have also received federal assistance. Similar subsidies have been given in Nebraska. In one Iowa town of about 1,300, a national egg corporation recently opened an automated egg processing plant which received almost $10 million of public funds -- roughly the entire cost of the new plant.

Unfortunately, such largesse has not been shared with struggling rural communities where these plants are located and which are forced to pay the direct costs of their exploitative hiring practices is the form of increased demands on education, housing, and social service programs.

New Workers' Rights Enacted

In response to documented abuses, the Iowa Legislature passed a bill in 1990 providing new rights to non-English speaking workers. Chapter 91E of the Iowa Code, which became law July 1, 1990, requires companies that recruit workers from more than 500 miles from an Iowa plant site, and have over 100 employees, at least 10% of whom are non-English speaking and speak the same language, to provide: an interpreter available at the work site for each shift during which non-English speaking employees are present; a person employed whose primary responsibility is to serve as a referral agent to community services; free transportation back to the recruitment location for any employee who quits work for any reason within four weeks of hiring and requests transportation within three days of quitting; a signed, written statement to each recruited employee that includes the minimum number of hours the employee can expect to work each week, the hourly wages, including the starting wage, a description of job responsibilities and tasks, and the health risks to the employee known to the employer for that position. A Spanish language brochure, developed and distributed by PrairieFire across the state and in recruitment regions in California and the Southwest, describes these workers' rights in straightforward terms.

During the summer of 1991, PrairieFire examined the recruitment activities of Iowa meatpackers and processors. Prohibited by privacy laws from securing data files maintained by state job and employment service agencies, staff relied primarily on worker interviews and surveys, contacts in the social service fields, union locals, and on information supplied individuals and agencies in the primary recruiting areas.

In a December 5, 1991 reply to PrairieFire's request for recruitment information, the California Economic Development Dept. verified that Iowa Beef Processors had used that agency's offices at least 97 times between July, 1990 and August, 1991 -- in spite of company denials that it had recruited outside of Iowa only in January of 1991. IBP also placed at least one recruitment advertisement in a Spanish language newspaper in Southern California. The bilingual ad, which appeared in the August 2, 1991 La Prensa San Diego, told of good wages with scheduled raises. But as one Mexican immigrant recruited from Southern California to work at IBP's Columbus Junction plant told the Associated Press, "It's all contrary to what they told us. 'Mentiras,' he said, Spanish for lies."

Workers' Rights Ignored

In checks on compliance with the Iowa law, PrairieFire conducted a Spanish language survey of workers in September 1991 in Marshalltown, Iowa, where a Monfort/ConAgra pork plant is located. The survey of non-English speaking employees indicated that, to their knowledge, none of the provisions in the Iowa law had been complied with, including the referral agent and interpreter requirements. Finally, community service agency representatives in three other communities where IBP plants are located indicated they had no knowledge of any IBP employee at the local plant primarily responsible for assisting employees to access community services.

During the 1992 session of the Iowa Legislature, PrairieFire's work resulted in proposed legislation to tighten enforcement procedures of the 1990 recruitment law. The bill also required employers to provide workers' compensation for job-related injuries, unemployment compensation information, and other employee rights information in the language of the employee. Despite a broad coalition of labor, farm and religious groups that supported the measure, and despite passing both houses of the Iowa Legislature, the bill was vetoed by the Governor, who claimed that non-English workers were already sufficiently protected by existing laws.

As immigrant and minority worker issues continue to simmer in meatpacking and poultry processing plants and communities across the region, PrairieFire is responding through new community organizing initiatives recently launched with Spanish-speaking workers. The research component of these initiatives is now, quite literally, on the ground with the people impacted, and from them will emerge an organizing agenda to confront those corporate and institutional powers that routinely and brazenly exploit race and poverty in processing this nation's food supply.
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