Rural Migration News

October 1995


Volume 1 Number 4


Hispanics in Iowa Meatpacking


Hispanics and Asians now dominate the labor forces of midwestern meatpacking, an industry that has come full circle in the 20th century. It was first an entry-level job for immigrants, then a high-wage industrial job for the native born, and is once again at the end of the century an immigrant job.


Meatpacking plants were typically unionized until 1980, and they paid wages high enough for one worker to support a family. For this reason, many midwestern towns welcomed or tolerated meatpacking plants despite their smells.


Unionization and wages in meatpacking fell 50 percent during the 1980s, while the speed of the kill lines increased by 50 percent. A 1986 US Supreme Court ruling permitted meatpacking companies to merge, and a merger wave permitted four companies, led by IBP with 32,000 employees, to control 80 percent of US meatpacking.


The meatpacking work force in Iowa and other Midwestern states is increasingly comprised of Hispanic and Asian immigrants. Turnover rates are very high--often over 100 percent per year, which means that workers average fewer than six months on the job. Critics argue that meat packers deliberately keep turnover high in order to have most of the workers at entry level wages; companies counter that they try to reduce turnover to reduce training costs.


It is not clear how much training is provided by companies. Meatpacking companies report that they spend up to $3,000 to recruit and train each production employee who, with overtime averaging 10 hours per week, can earn about $25,000 annually. Starting wages are typically in the $5 to $6 per hour range, or $10,000 to $12,000 per year.


Immigrants are also coming to dominate the poultry processing work forces in the Southern states, and some have succeeded in bringing unions into plants in states that historically have few unions. On July 15, 1995 nearly 600 poultry processing workers represented by Local 693 of the Laborers' International Union of North America (LIUNA) unanimously ratified their first union contract at Sanderson Farms in Mississippi. Wage rates range from $6.90 an hour for line workers to $11.70 an hour for maintenance workers.


LIUNA has begun negotiations for a contract at the 1,300 employee Sanderson Farms poultry processing plant in Collins, Mississippi. On July 12, LIUNA won an election victory at Case Farms in Morganton, North Carolina, where 500 mostly Guatemalan and Mexican immigrants voted for LIUNA representation.


Many believe that the INS should devote more resources to interior enforcement to prevent unauthorized workers from obtaining US jobs. On September 26, the INS announced that Operation SouthPAW (PAW - Protecting America's Workers) had removed 4,000 unauthorized workers--almost 90 percent Mexicans--in 31 days of coordinated inspections by DOL and INS investigators in June and September--from 300 US firms in Mississippi, Tennessee, Arkansas, Georgia, Alabama and Florida.


One-third of the illegal workers were found in Georgia, and one-fourth in Arkansas. Follow-up surveys by the INS found that local residents filled over half of the jobs from which illegal aliens were removed. Some employers were re inspected, and ten were fined the maximum $15,000 for continuing to employ illegal alien workers.


Arkansas Governor Jim Guy Tucker questioned the significance of apprehending 600 illegal workers in his state when Tyson Foods alone employs 20,000 workers. Tyson Foods said inspections were disruptive, and the INS apprehended only 73 workers. According to Tyson, only 40 jobs were then opened up for legal workers.


Letters to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette criticized the INS raids. One asserted that, if the US really wants to stop illegal immigration, it should " focus on fining and putting companies out of business for violation of law. No jobs, no illegals."


Simmons Foods, a company that has worked closely with the INS to learn how to detect false documents, had six illegal workers in a work force of 650. Simmons officials said they would like to find a better way to check documents to eliminate the need for INS inspections.


The raids have brought fear to illegal immigrants in towns throughout the South. After Operation Gulf Sweep in Texas, there were reports that in some towns, streets and stores were empty because immigrants were afraid they would be picked up on the street by INS. One woman said she even gave up babysitting, and the $75 per week she earned from it, because she was afraid she would be picked up in the raids.


"New INS Enforcement Strategy Leads to 4,000 Workplace," Daily Labor Report, September 27, 1995. "INS Commissioner Announces Results of Operation SouthPAW," US Newswire, September 26, 1995. D.R. Stewart, "INS Defends Efforts to Week Out Illegals ," Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, September 25, 1995. Anne Fitzgerald, "As Meatpacking changes, a hard job gets harder," Des Moines Register, September 17, 1995. DR Stewart, "INS Plucks 200 illegals from state poultry plants," Arkansas Democrat Gazette, September 7, 1995. Tom Carney, "Hispanics find pain, promise in packing," Des Moines Register, July 2, 1995.

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