Behind that chicken dinner, immigrants with little workplace voice

Why We Wrote This

Recent immigration raids highlighted how an industry taps society’s least powerful workers ​– immigrants ​– for some of America’s riskiest low-paid jobs.

Rogelio V. Solis/AP
Children of mainly Latino immigrant parents hold signs in support of them and those individuals picked up during an immigration raid at a food processing plant in Canton, Mississippi, in August. The rally followed a Catholic mass in Canton on Aug. 11, 2019.

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Poultry processing is labor-intensive work, and since the 1990s consumer demand for chicken has surged across the U.S. To meet that demand, the industry has turned largely to the labor of immigrants.

Carlos Ramos and his co-workers in one Virginia plant have struggled in what federal data show is among the most dangerous occupations. Originally from El Salvador, Mr. Ramos joined an effort to bring labor-union representation to the Cargill plant in Dayton, Virginia. That effort failed last year. Now Mr. Ramos and others who have temporary protected status face the possibility of deportation, if a 2018 Trump administration decision to end that status survives court challenges.

The pairing of those two concerns – tough work conditions and immigration status – isn’t a mere coincidence. Labor experts say it’s a pattern in the industry, as highlighted in August by immigration raids against poultry plants in Mississippi.

“Their business model is to find the most vulnerable workers – workers who will keep their head down and just do the work,” says Debbie Berkowitz, former chief of staff at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

It’s late Sunday afternoon and the church meeting hall still smells like pupusas as Carlos Ramos rubs his neck and reflects on his 15 years handling turkeys at a nearby poultry plant in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. 

“The human body adapts to the work,” he says through an interpreter. 

But the work hasn’t yet been adapted to the human body, he says. So this fall, Mr. Ramos says, he’ll get surgery – on his own dime – to repair two slipped discs in his neck. 

Originally from El Salvador, Mr. Ramos has organized the meeting at this church to discuss a presidential decision in 2018 to end temporary protected status for him and other immigrants – many of whom work with him and experience similar injuries. Now, many of them face the possibility of deportation if the federal policy survives court challenges.

The pairing of those two concerns – tough work conditions and immigration status – isn’t a mere coincidence. Poultry processing is one of the most dangerous jobs in the country, according to federal data. Workers are exposed to chemicals and use knives and scissors in cold, slippery conditions. Injury rates have decreased significantly over the past 25 years, but there remains a persistent problem of underreporting.

The jobs have also been increasingly filled by immigrants. Experts say the patterns reflect race-to-the-bottom forces in an industry that is labor intensive, price competitive, and which operates largely out of the public eye.

“Their business model is to find the most vulnerable workers – workers who will keep their head down and just do the work and won’t complain, and when they get injured, they leave,” says Debbie Berkowitz, former chief of staff at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. “That’s how the industry is able to rely on immigrant workers.”

ICE-raid tremors

The industry’s heavy reliance on immigrants ​– often a mix of legal and unauthorized ​– was highlighted in August by immigration enforcement raids in Mississippi. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raided seven chicken processing plants and arrested nearly 700 unauthorized immigrants. 

The raid sent shock waves throughout the industry, yet the plants were able to remain open. Even as the industry scrambles to fill vacant jobs, labor activists say it is workers, more than corporations, who face deepening uncertainty. Worries over immigration status and enforcement are now piled on top of workers who feel little ability to advocate for themselves or organize.

Mr. Ramos’ experience is a case study in the challenges workers confront. Three years ago, he and others tried to start a union to improve working conditions at their plant in Dayton, just southwest of Harrisonburg. They put pressure on management and worked with community members to stage protests, but it wasn’t enough. Their former office in Harrisonburg is now empty.

“I was one of the few workers who talked to the supervisors during break time and participated in any march in front of them,” said Mr. Ramos. “It was just a few of us who went out to see these [protests]. I was really frustrated.”

Union organizing can be difficult anywhere in America. But that’s particularly true in the southeastern states where the poultry industry is concentrated, where laws are less welcoming to unions. 

The need for speed

Since its inception, poultry processing has had a history of low wages and poor working conditions. Birds speed along a conveyor belt while human hands cut, debone, and bag them – nimble, precise tasks that have resisted automation and made companies heavily reliant upon human labor.  

“Because it is a labor intensive industry, labor costs are one of the few areas that you need to worry about,” says Roger Horowitz, a food historian. “And that intrinsically makes these firms resistant to union labor ... because they want to maintain that kind of control.”

The industry boomed in the 1990s, as chicken rose alongside pork and beef on American menus. Long reliant on lower-income African American and white workers, companies met that demand by recruiting thousands of Hispanic immigrants.

Mr. Ramos became part of the shift when he arrived over 20 years ago in the Shenandoah Valley – considered by some the birthplace of the modern poultry industry. Now he’s among thousands of Hispanic workers in the region’s poultry plants. 

Worker turnover is high and lines are understaffed, says Jose Cruz Barahona, who is retired after 15 years at the Dayton plant. 

“Now that there’s less workers, the work is so much harder. But it always ends up getting done,” he says through an interpreter. “The American worker isn’t able to keep up with that. It’s only the immigrant worker, the Latino worker that stays.”

Staying carries risks. Nationwide, about every other day between 2015 and 2018, a worker lost a body part or was sent to the hospital for in-patient treatment. An ammonia leak earlier this summer sent several workers at the Dayton Cargill plant to the hospital. 

One of the largest poultry companies, Cargill disputes the view that workers are at risk, saying in a written statement that “we believe safe operations are the cornerstone of productive operations. We take a balanced approach to incentives that focuses on factors such as safety performance, food safety and quality, employee engagement, process efficiencies and productivity.”

“OSHA never does anything”

But some recent national trends raise concerns. The industry just successfully lobbied the Trump administration to increase the line speed. OSHA is operating with the fewest safety and health inspectors in its 48-year history, and a federal court ruling last year may limit the scope of agency inspections. Furthermore, a Government Accountability Office report revealed that OSHA may not be aware of the scope of problems because workers are reluctant to contact the agency for fear of employer retaliation. 

“OSHA never does anything. They come to investigate and they just go to human resources,” says Wilfredo Flores, a former Dayton worker who says Cargill fired him in 2016 for talking publicly about the plant’s working conditions, a charge Cargill disputes. “Thirteen years there, I never had OSHA ask me how I was being treated.”

Amid complaints, poultry companies have added “health clinics” to address injuries on-site in recent decades. But that doesn’t address the fear that still exists in the plants, says Salvador Portillo, who has worked at the Dayton plant for 25 years.

“People are afraid to go to the company doctor,” he says, referring to employee concerns that managers may count it against them. 

Seeking a union

When Mr. Ramos and other workers tried to unionize the Dayton plan, one hurdle was the state’s “right to work” legal landscape and a trend of decline for organized labor.

Some poultry plants had been unionized in the past, but by the 1990s “the industry started hiring more immigrant and undocumented labor, groups [that] are less likely to participate in union activities,” says Ted Genoways, author of a book about labor conditions in the meatpacking industry.

That fed another challenge: simply communicating. The Dayton plant had over 1,100 workers working various shifts around the clock, and a substantial refugee population speaking nine different languages. 

Their prospects for rallying workers grew still bleaker when Cargill learned about the effort and hired a labor relations consultancy known for union-busting tactics.

“The resistance to the union was strong by the employer, a powerful multinational company,” says Jonathan Williams, communications director for the union involved, the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 400. 

The union campaign fizzled out last year. But Mr. Ramos is happy they tried. Wages have gone up, bonuses are more frequent, and workers doing more strenuous work get paid more, he says.

“Right now Cargill is the one that’s doing a little bit better with its workers,” he says. “I think part of that was what happened with the union.” 

The Dayton plant might be an outlier, however. A recent lawsuit alleges that top companies conspired to keep immigrant wages low. And although the ICE raids come amid pledges by President Donald Trump to crack down on illegal immigration, activists also claim company owners are using ICE raids to retaliate against workers who have organized or publicly decried conditions, including the Mississippi raids in September.

“What’s going on there is an American argument that if you come and endure all of this, you’re working towards something, you’re building a nest egg for you and your family, your kids will be born into citizenship,” says Mr. Genoways. “All of those minor promises have been made to that workforce for a generation. And now, as there’s a growing anxiety about the number of people who have taken that deal, there’s this move at a political level to remove those benefits.”

It happened here in Virginia, too: Immigration officials raided the Dayton plant in 2008 because they suspected Cargill knowingly hired over 400 unauthorized employees. Mr. Ramos says the hiring practices changed, but labor conditions did not. Now, more than a decade later, he’s still bagging turkeys to keep his family – including his American-born daughter – afloat. 

“Hispanic people are sort of modern slaves of this country,” he says. “We’re slaves because we have to ask permission on the line to go to the bathroom, to ask for this, to ask for that. We have our car, we have our house – but under a certain system.”

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