US Meatpacking Industry Faces Immigrant Worker Shortage

31 May 2020

When Martha Kebede's adult sons moved from Ethiopia to join her in the United States this year, they had few job possibilities.

The brothers took jobs at Smithfield Foods' meat processing business near Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where their mother lives. The work there is difficult. It also has become increasingly risky. The new coronavirus has sickened thousands of meatpacking workers nationwide.

One day half the workers in one department did not show up for work. Later, the brothers tested positive for COVID-19.

"It was very, very sad," Martha Kebede told the Associated Press.

Almost 175,000 immigrants are employed in the U.S. meatpacking industry. It has historically depended on foreign-born workers for some of the most dangerous jobs in the country.

At least 20 meatpacking workers have died from COVID-19. Several meatpacking centers have temporarily closed because of the coronavirus spread. This has raised concerns about possible labor shortages to meet demand for cow, pig and chicken meat.

Companies struggling to find workers before the coronavirus crisis are spending millions on new ways to appeal to employees. Their ability to bring in new workers depends on things like unemployment levels, industry changes, and employees' feelings about safety. It also depends on U.S. President Donald Trump's immigration policies.

Trump has restricted nearly all immigration. But his administration recently gave seasonal workers 60-day extensions, affecting some in the meatpacking industry.

Daniel Costa with the Economic Policy Institute said that about 350 foreign workers were given official approval for meat industry jobs in 2019. Such H-2B visa holders, limited to 66,000 per year, are commonly employed in other industries.

But there has been willingness to expand. In early March, the Trump administration announced that 35,000 additional foreign workers would be permitted into the U.S. to take seasonal jobs. The following month, the plan was suspended for "present economic circumstances."

Workers inside a Tyson meat packing plant. (Courtesy of Tyson)
Workers inside a Tyson meat packing plant. (Courtesy of Tyson)

The nonprofit Migration Policy Institute reports that immigrants represent about 40 percent of the nearly 470,000 workers in U.S. meatpacking. Estimates on undocumented immigrants vary from 14 percernt to more than 50 percent at some factories.

Industry leaders say they offer jobs with benefits and paths to higher positions for all workers. Paulina Francisco said her 21 years at Smithfield in Sioux City, Iowa, helped her buy a home -- something she did not think was possible when she immigrated from Guatemala. She is now a citizen.

Still, most jobs are rural, limiting workers' access to lawyers, favorable labor laws and other kinds of jobs. Hourly pay averages around $12 for physically demanding work. Workers in the country illegally fear being sent back if they take action against poor labor conditions.

"Vulnerable populations work well" for the industry, said Joshua Specht, a University of Notre Dame professor.

Sudanese refugee Salaheldin Ahmed moved to South Dakota six years ago to work at Smithfield. After escaping war, the 44-year-old says he feels little worry, even after testing positive for the coronavirus.

"They were killing in front of you," said Ahmed, of the violence he witnessed in Sudan. "The coronavirus is nothing." He has recovered from COVID-19.

Some data suggests that police raids at these plants may temporarily decrease immigrant employment.

Michael Clemens is a migration expert with the Center for Global Development, a nonprofit research group. He said noncitizens represented 52 percent of U.S. meatpacking in 2006 and then 42 percent by 2008. But during the Great Recession of 2008 those percentages changed again. By 2011, about 56 percent of meatpacking workers were noncitizens.

With the fast turnover of employees, it is common for factories to re-employ an entire workforce yearly, says the non-profit group National Employment Law Project, or NELP. It seeks policies that support workers rights. NELP's health and safety program director, Debbie Berkowitz said meat packing companies "want to look for workers they can exploit, rather than workers that would feel comfortable raising concerns."

The North American Meat Institute, an industry trade group, estimates most U.S. factories are at 70 percent production. Many meatpacking companies have added physical barriers between workers and other COVID-19 protections.

I'm Pete Musto.

Stephen Groves and Sophia Tareen reported on this story for the Associated Press. Pete Musto adapted it for VOA Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor. 

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Words in This Story

positiveadj. showing the presence of a particular germ, condition, or substance

circumstance(s) – n. a condition or fact that affects a situation

varyv. to be different or to become different

benefit(s) – n. something extra such as vacation time or health insurance that is given by an employer to workers in addition to their regular pay

access n. a way of getting near, at, or to something or someone

vulnerableadj. easily hurt or harmed physically, mentally, or emotionally

plant(s) – n. a building or factory where something is made

turnovern. the rate at which people leave a place or company and are replaced by others

exploitv. to use someone or something in a way that helps you unfairly

comfortableadj. not worried or troubled