Saturday marked a month since U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents swooped down on seven poultry processing plants in Mississippi and rounded up for deportation 680 workers believed to be in the country illegally.
And, barring a surprise announcement from the Department of Justice, Saturday also marked the end of a month during which no charges will have been filed against the owners and managers of the companies that operate the plants.
It would be a surprise because such charges are vanishingly rare — an analysis by researchers at Syracuse University of the year beginning on April 1, 2018, found the government prosecuted zero companies and fewer than a dozen individuals for the “crime” of employing workers living in the U.S. illegally.
I put the word crime in quotes because those workers are integral to agriculture and other sectors of the economy where employees do jobs that many Americans don’t want to do at the wages that are paid.
But the raids in Mississippi were worse than simply an unnecessary, cruel and hypocritical flex by the Trump administration in its war on immigrants living in the U.S. without permission.
They were a shot across the bow of all such workers, reminding them not to complain, not to organize or otherwise make trouble. Because they, not their employers, are vulnerable to spasms of anti-immigrant fervor and showy crackdowns.
Wednesday, Human Rights Watch issued a particularly well-timed report titled “‘When We’re Dead and Buried, Our Bones Will Keep Hurting’ — Workers’ Rights Under Threat in US Meat and Poultry Plants.”
The 105-page document is a follow-up to the international organization’s 2005 report “Blood, Sweat, and Fear” that outlined how government and business have conspired to institute policies that violate the rights of some of our most vulnerable workers.
Wednesday’s report, based in part on interviews with nearly 50 workers at 15 processing plants (though none in Mississippi), describes low-paying, hazardous work performed at an exhausting pace.
“To ensure production speed,” says the report, “some workers said that supervisors even refuse to let them use the restroom during their shift or require them to wait for replacements who may never come, and described their colleagues wearing diapers as a result.”
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The report cites estimates a quarter of the 330,000 plant workers who kill, cut, debone and package American-grown meat are living in the U.S. illegally. Their average pay is less than $15 an hour, 44% lower than the national average for manufacturing work, while rates of job-related injury and illness are “significantly higher than the average for manufacturing workers.”
Anthropology professor Angela Stuesse from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill reported in a recent Washington Post op-ed that the predominance of Latin America-born workers in such plants is a direct result of recruiting efforts begun in the 1990s by poultry companies trying to weaken budding efforts by African American workers to unionize.
A U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2002 helped seal the deal when it held workers living here illegally are not entitled to back pay even after being illegally fired for union organizing.
In responding to Human Rights Watch investigators, meat and poultry companies said they participate in E-Verify, a government-run eligibility checking program aimed at screening out workers who lack the proper documentation for employment. But that program is famously porous and susceptible to fraud.
The report describes an interview with a woman who said she’d been working at a poultry plant for nearly 10 years when managers told her the government had flagged her paperwork as phony. “She stopped going to work but returned about a month later and applied to work at the same plant with new papers and a new name,” says the report. “She now works at the same position … with the same supervisor and same coworkers — but with a new name.”
Among the report’s recommendations are strict enforcement of new, lower work-speed standards and increased audits of the injury rates at plants as part of an overall focus on increased safety.
The report also recommends Congress pass a law to require the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to stay deportation orders for individuals with credible claims to “have suffered abuses or retaliation resulting from workplace violation claims.”
The broader but unspoken demand is for American consumers, particularly those who are in a perpetual lather about the “invasion” of brown-skinned people across our borders, to be fair and to get real.
Your meats are as cheap as they are because the boot of hypocrisy is on the necks of those who are forced to live and work on the perilous bottom rungs of society.
It is a crime to pretend otherwise.