[ What Trump has called an “invasion” was actually a corporate
recruitment drive.] [https://portside.org/] 

 PORTSIDE LABOR 

 WHY IT’S IMMIGRANTS WHO PACK YOUR MEAT  
[https://portside.org/2019-08-19/why-its-immigrants-who-pack-your-meat]


 

 Eric Schlosser 
 August 16, 2019
The Atlantic
[https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/08/trumps-invasion-was-a-corporate-recruitment-drive/596230/]


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 _ What Trump has called an “invasion” was actually a corporate
recruitment drive. _ 

 , ROGELIO V. SOLIS / ASSOCIATED PRESS 

 

The immigration raid last week at seven poultry plants in rural
Mississippi was a perfect symbol of the Trump administration’s
racism, lies, hypocrisy, and contempt for the poor. It was also a case
study in how an industry with a long history of defying the law has
managed to shift the blame and punishment onto workers.

Planned for more than a year, the raid involved at least 600 agents
from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, helicopters, and a
staging area at a local National Guard base. The agents carried
handguns, wore black body armor, and led 680 immigrant
workers—almost all Latino, many of them women—to waiting buses
with their hands zip-tied behind their backs. One worker, an American
citizen, was shot with a Taser for resisting arrest. Children gathered
outside the poultry plants crying as their parents were taken away and
sent to private prisons; other kids sat in classrooms and at day-care
centers, unaware that their families were being torn apart. It was the
first week of school.

“The timing was unfortunate,” Kevin McAleenan, the acting head of
the Department of Homeland Security, later acknowledged. Twenty-two
people had been killed a few days earlier in El Paso, Texas, where a
gunman had targeted Mexican
[https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/09/us/el-paso-suspect-confession.html] customers
at a Walmart out of a desire to halt “the Hispanic invasion of
Texas.” President Donald Trump expressed no regret and applauded the
Mississippi raid, arguing that it would deter undocumented immigrants
from taking American jobs. “I just hope to keep it up,” he said.

Despite the fact that the poultry workers were merely arrested, not
yet found guilty, Mike Morgan, the acting commissioner of U.S. Customs
and Border Protection, dismissed concerns about an 11-year-old girl
photographed sobbing outside one of the plants. “I understand the
girl’s upset, and I get that, but her father committed a crime,”
Morgan told CNN. He also denied that “raids” had occurred, calling
them “targeted law-enforcement operations.” His comments
reinforced the big lie at the heart of Trump’s presidency: that
undocumented immigrants are threatening and scary parasites who can be
kept away with a wall. “The Mexican government is forcing their most
unwanted people into the United States,” Trump said while running
for office. “They are in many cases criminals, drug dealers,
rapists, etc.”

As _The __Washington Post_
[https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker/wp/2015/07/08/donald-trumps-false-comments-connecting-mexican-immigrants-and-crime/] and
others have noted, immigrants to the United States are less likely to
commit crimes than native-born Americans. Far from being a drain on
the American economy, immigrants have become an essential component of
it. According to a recent study
[https://www.jhsph.edu/research/centers-and-institutes/johns-hopkins-center-for-a-livable-future/_pdf/research/clf_reports/public-health-immigration-reform-and-food-system-change.pdf] by
the Center for a Livable Future at Johns Hopkins University, “The
industrial produce and animal production and processing systems in the
U.S. would collapse without the immigrant and migratory workforce.”
The handful of multinational companies that dominate our food system
are hardly being forced to employ immigrant workers. These firms have
for many years embraced the opportunity to exploit them for profit.

More than a century ago, when Upton Sinclair wrote _The Jungle
[https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/292280/the-jungle-by-upton-sinclair/9780143039587/]_,
the workers in American meatpacking plants were recent immigrants,
largely from eastern Europe. Sinclair eloquently depicted the routine
mistreatment of these poor workers. They were employed for long hours
at low wages, exposed to dangerous working conditions, sexually
abused, injured on the job, and fired after getting hurt. In the
novel, the slaughterhouses of Chicago serve as a metaphor for the
ruthless greed of America in the age of the robber barons, of a
society ruled by the law of the jungle. During the following decades,
the lives of meatpacking workers greatly improved, thanks to the
growing strength of labor unions. And by the early 1970s, a job at a
meatpacking plant offered stable employment, high wages, good
benefits, and the promise of a middle-class life.

When I visited meatpacking communities in Colorado, Nebraska, Texas,
and Washington State almost 20 years ago, those gains had been lost.
As I described in my book _Fast Food Nation_, published in 2001, the
largest companies in the beef industry had recruited immigrants in
Mexico, brought them to the meatpacking communities of the American
West and Midwest, and used them during the Ronald Reagan era to break
unions. Wages were soon cut by as much as 50 percent. Line speeds were
increased, government oversight was reduced, and injured workers were
once again forced to remain on the job or get fired. In _The Chain
[https://www.harpercollins.com/9780062288769/the-chain]_, published in
2014, Ted Genoways wrote about similar changes in the pork industry.
And in 2016’s _Scratching Out a Living
[https://www.ucpress.edu/book/9780520287211/scratching-out-a-living]_,
Angela Stuesse wrote about the transformation of the poultry industry
in the rural South, with a prescient focus on the abuse of Latino
workers in Mississippi.

All three books reached the same conclusion: What Trump has described
as an immigrant “invasion” was actually a corporate recruitment
drive for poor, vulnerable, undocumented, often desperate workers.

One of the poultry plants that Stuesse explored, in the small town of
Morton, Mississippi, was raided last week. B. C. Rogers, the company
that owned the plant in 1994, launched a hiring drive that year called
“The Hispanic Project.” Its goal was to replace African American
workers, who were seeking a union, with immigrant workers who’d be
more pliant. It placed ads in Miami newspapers, arranged
transportation for immigrants, and charged them for housing in
dilapidated trailers. Within four years, it had brought roughly 5,000
mainly Latino workers to Morton and another meatpacking town in
Mississippi, enlarging their population by more than 50 percent. The
poultry industry expanded throughout the rural South during the 1990s,
drawn by the warm climate and the absence of labor unions. Tens of
thousands of immigrant workers soon arrived to cut meat. Charlotte S.
Alexander, an associate professor at the Georgia State College of
Law put it succinctly
[https://scholarship.law.berkeley.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1453&context=bjell]:
“In the poultry industry, location is a labor practice.”

The immigrant workers arrested in Mississippi the other day were
earning about $12.50 an hour. Adjusted for inflation, during the late
1970s, the wages of meatpacking workers in Iowa and Colorado were
about $50 an hour.

If you believe the numbers compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics,
the injury rate among meatpacking workers has greatly declined in
recent years. I don’t believe them. During the George W. Bush
administration, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration
(OSHA) decided that cumulative trauma injuries no longer had to be
recorded separately by meatpacking firms. As a result, from 2001 to
2003, the total number of injuries miraculously dropped by one-third.
A few years ago, the U.S. Government Accountability Office admitted
that [https://www.gao.gov/assets/680/676796.pdf] meat and poultry
workers “may underreport injuries and illnesses because they fear
losing their jobs, and employers may underreport because of concerns
about potential costs.” One study suggested that two-thirds of the
injuries in American meatpacking plants are never officially recorded.

Even if you accept the accuracy of the official statistics,
meatpacking remains an unusually dangerous and unpleasant occupation,
with an injury rate much higher than that of other manufacturing jobs.
Poultry workers stand close to one another with sharp knives,
repeating the same motion again and again more than 15,000 times in a
single shift, slicing birds as they pass on conveyor belts every two
seconds. A 2013 investigation
[https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/updates/upd-03-27-14_b.html] by the
National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found that 42
percent of the workers at a poultry plant in South Carolina were
suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome. The work is bloody, difficult,
and full of potential harms. Lacerations are commonplace, and the high
prevalence of fecal bacteria in poultry plants increases the risk that
wounds will become infected. A study
[https://www.jhsph.edu/news/news-releases/2007/price-poultry-workers.html] of
poultry workers in Maryland and Virginia found that they were 32 times
more likely than other residents of the area to be carriers of
antibiotic-resistant _E. coli_. Poultry workers suffer from
respiratory ailments, chemical burns, fractures, concussions, eye
damage, sprains, strains, concussions, and exposure to toxic
fumes. Reporting on the industry
[https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/05/08/exploitation-and-abuse-at-the-chicken-plant] for _The
New Yorker_, Michael Grabell counted more than 750 amputations from
2010 to 2017.

Last year, two employees of Peco Foods, which operates one of the
plants raided in Mississippi, survived amputations during separate
accidents at the same facility in Arkansas—and yet OSHA never
visited the plant to look for safety problems after the accidents.
Deborah Berkowitz, a former OSHA official who now handles
worker-safety issues for the National Employment Law Project, told me
that the Trump administration’s close ties to the meatpacking
industry are making the work even more dangerous. OSHA’s enforcement
activity has declined since Trump took office, and the agency now has
the fewest inspectors since it was created in 1971.

The emotional toll of working in a poultry plant can be worse than
some of the physical ailments. Koch Foods, the current owner of the
plant in Morton, settled a case in 2018 with the U.S. Equal Employment
Opportunity Commission. Although the company admitted neither guilt
nor wrongdoing, it paid $3.75 million to workers at the Morton plant
who claimed to have been sexually harassed and punished for refusing
to comply. The case brings to mind passages from _The Jungle_, with
female employees allegedly grabbed and groped by supervisors, offered
money for sex, promised better jobs in return for bribes, and demoted
to humiliating jobs as retribution. Owned by Joseph Grendys, a Chicago
multibillionaire, Koch Foods was also cited by the Department of
Agriculture for discriminating against African American poultry
farmers. According to an investigation
[https://www.propublica.org/article/how-a-top-chicken-company-cut-off-black-farmers-one-by-one] by
ProPublica this summer, 173 poultry farmers have contracts with Koch
Foods in Mississippi, and none of them is black.

In addition to ignoring the poultry industry’s abuse of immigrant
workers, the Trump administration has eliminated regulations that
protect poultry farmers from being treated unfairly. It has exempted
factory farms from Environmental Protection Agency rules governing the
release of air pollution. It is permitting the increase of line speeds
at poultry and pork slaughterhouses, making worker injuries more
likely and jeopardizing food safety.

Mike Hurst, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of
Mississippi, helped coordinate the immigration raid and joined ICE
agents on the scene. He is the leading Justice Department official in
America’s poorest state, one with a history of racist brutality and
some of the lowest rates of undocumented immigration in the country.
(Perhaps 0.7 percent
[https://www.pewresearch.org/hispanic/interactives/u-s-unauthorized-immigrants-by-state/] of
the population of Mississippi is currently undocumented.) “The
execution of federal search warrants today was simply about enforcing
the rule of law in our state and throughout our great country,”
Hurst claimed in a press release. He later defended the raid during an
appearance on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show. “This
administration, this president, is all about law and order,” he
said. And he said it with a straight face. No top executive of a major
meatpacking company has been arrested for violating immigration,
worker-safety, food-safety, antitrust, or environmental laws. The
adjectives _shameful_ and _disgraceful _don’t approach the
reality of what is now taking place.

Over the years, I’ve spent time with countless farmworkers and
meatpacking workers who entered the United States without proper
documentation. Almost all of them were hardworking and deeply
religious. They had taken enormous risks and suffered great hardships
on behalf of their families. Today workers like them are the bedrock
of our food system. And they are now being scapegoated, hunted down,
and terrorized at the direction of a president who inherited
[https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-10-02/ny-times-trump-got-413m-from-his-dad-much-from-tax-dodges] about
$400 million from his father, watches television all day, and employs
undocumented immigrants at his golf resorts.

The day after the immigration raid in Mississippi, the United Nations
issued a report
[https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/08/climate/climate-change-food-supply.html?action=click&module=Top%20Stories&pgtype=Homepage] suggesting
that everyone should eat less meat to reduce the impact of climate
change. That’s a good recommendation. An even better one would be:
Don’t buy anything produced by America’s large industrial
meatpacking companies. Every dollar that you give them now is blood
money, literally and figuratively.

ERIC SCHLOSSER
[https://www.theatlantic.com/author/eric-schlosser/] is the author
of _Fast Food Nation_ and co-producer of the documentary _Food,
Inc._

 

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