Over the years, I’ve visited more than 200 poultry, meatpacking and meat processing plants, here in the USA, in Canada, in half a dozen countries in Europe and in Hong Kong and China.
Working conditions and levels of sanitation varied greatly, of course, depending on the country, the ownership and the type of operations being conducted. However, the one constant I experienced — and I probably sound arrogant putting it this way — was an overwhelming feeling of being thankful I’d earned a college degree, and that I was wielding a notebook and occasionally a camera, as opposed to working a boning knife or running a splitting saw.
In virtually every plant, the line workers had to perform in fast paced, cold, stressful conditions, while earning wages that were often barely above the minimum.
There are various justifications for how meat and poultry industry employees are deployed and compensated, ranging from realistic (“It’s a competitive industry”) to ludicrous (“They’re unskilled and shouldn’t expect high salaries”). But the bottom line is that the jobs in meat and poultry plants are demanding and the pay rates are less-than-luxurious.
As a result, you’d have to search to find a plant operator whose primary concern isn’t recruiting and retaining employees. In addition, most plants long ago exited populous urban areas, where there is a larger pool from which to recruit workers, and relocated in small towns in rural areas, where it’s tough to find even a couple dozen people willing to perform hard, demanding work under wet, cold conditions for less than a living wage.
Why Illegal Immigrants Get Hired
Thus, it’s no surprise that the staffing in packing and processing plants relies heavily on newly arrived immigrants, whose lack of formal education, language skills and in many cases, undocumented status, severely limits their employment opportunities. And many, many meat and poultry industry workers I’ve talked with share the same story: Despite the challenges of working at a difficult job for low wages, their situations are significantly improved, compared with the non-existent employment opportunities in their home countries.
The truth is, other than supervisory positions, office or admin staff or relatively “cleaner” jobs, such as forklift driver, very few Americans with even a minimal amount of formal education are willing (or able) to stick with an entry-level job in a meat or poultry plant earning $12 bucks an hour beyond a couple weeks or a month.
That’s why immigration raids on such plants (such as the one that occurred last week in Tennessee at the Southeastern Provision Company’s beef packing plant), end up identifying any number of immigrants who are working here without proper documentation.
However, the presence of people working jobs “off the books” isn’t limited to the meat and poultry industries. In January, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials raided 7-Eleven stores in 17 states and the District of Columbia and made numerous arrests.
Overall, according to reporting by The Washington Post, ICE in 2017 conducted 1,360 employee audits and arrested more than 300 people for alleged criminal and civil immigration violations. Businesses were ordered to pay $97.6 million in judicial forfeiture, fines and restitution and $7.8 million in civil fines, agency records revealed.
Without question, companies that knowingly hire immigrants who’ve arrived here illegally shouldn’t be let off the hook. They’re responsible for disrupting local labor markets and dodging payment of taxes.
For example: IRS Special Agent Nicholas R. Worsham stated in an affidavit that Southeastern Provision is under criminal investigation for allegedly failing to report $8.4 million in wages and evading some $2.5 million in payroll taxes, according to The Post.
That’s wrong, and plant operators who violate the law should be punished.
Here’s the problem, though. Right now, the punishment is primarily inflicted on the people who work in those plants, in the jobs American citizens refuse to do — which isn’t a surprise. Would you want your son or daughter to finish high school, graduate from college and then go to work on a boning line in some beef plant?
Of course not. Yet somebody has to do those jobs, otherwise the entire business of animal agriculture collapses. The people being rounded up for deportation are merely the symptom, not the cause, of the problem.
The solution to the issue of undocumented food industry workers — and let’s stipulate that this discussion is limited to people working in gainful employment — is straightforward, although hardly one that’s easily implemented.
Step one is a significant raise in wages for the semi-skilled employees in processing plants heavily reliant on manual labor. That won’t happen by relying on the private sector to unilaterally raise wages: Who wants to go first in that scenario? That can only be accomplished with a substantial increase in the national minimum wage.
Step two is development of a path to legitimacy for the millions of people who arrived here illegally, yet who are working at essential jobs native-born Americans don’t want to and won’t be persuaded to take.
No one needs to invent some complex new policy; just come up with a way to foster a new focus for our political priorities, which now seems to be focused solely on punishing employers and deporting their employees.
I don’t hold out hopes for implementation of those initiatives anytime soon, but as a country, we need to begin by at least changing the conversation to talk about solutions, not incarceration.
Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.