October 02, 2008

Immigrant Labor and the Meat Industry


On May 12 2008, a meat packing plant called Agriprocessors was raided by immigration and customs enforcement officials (ICE) based on information regarding the falsification of social security numbers by its workers. ICE agents, armed with M16 and bullet proof vests, surrounded the facilities with helicopters and government vehicles. They detained at least three hundred suspected illegal immigrants. Hundreds of others, not present at the time, fled. The multimillion-dollar company left to clean up the mess was in shock. The town of Postville, Iowa was devastated. And all parties suffered as a result: the owners, the remaining workers, the markets, and the immigrants themselves. Company growth was stunted. Jobs were lost forever. Communities were shattered. And families were uprooted and forced to bear legal troubles and financial strife.

In the face of such devastation, who is to blame? The government for enforcing the law? The lawmakers for making the law? The immigrants for leaving their country because of poverty? Or the capitalists for employing the impoverished immigrant?

The issue of illegal immigration can be explored via any of these questions but I want to focus on one: Are capitalists to blame? Its an important question because our markets are based on aggressive capital enterprise. Our form of government encourages that enterprise. So, any attempt at to address the inherent problems forces us to take a hard look within ourselves and the society we live in. The meat industry is just one example of the reliance on cheap immigrant labor to fuel our markets and our economy. The ideas I will present related to immigrant labor in the meat industry can be applied to any hard labor oriented industry in the US. Let me begin by telling the story of Agriprocessors: its origin, the market forces that influenced its development and its labor practices.

In the mid 1980s, a successful and industrious kosher butcher named Aaron Rubashkin expanded his New York City based butcher shop by purchasing an old meat packing facility in Postville, Iowa. The reason for the move was market driven. It was more economical to expand the business in the Midwest where cattle is prevalent and land is cheap than it was to expand in New York City. He purchased an old plant formerly called Hygrade meat and transformed it into Agriprocessors.

Postville is typical of small town Iowa. Its in the middle of nowhere. It is surrounded on all sides by corn and soybean as far as the eye can see. Two square blocks make up downtown. There is one grocery store, two gas stations, a few restaurants and two bars. Excluding Friday nights during high school football season and the hours right after the bars close, nothing exciting happens in Postville. The highlight of a workingmans week might be the forty-five minute drive to Wal-Mart. It isn’t the most logical place for a community of orthodox Jews to take up residence but industry demands prevailed.

The plant has become the central feature of the town in the last twenty years. It is the lifeblood that animates everything around it. It employs nine hundred people in a town of about two thousand. The dull grey buildings that make up the Agriprocessors complex house a hi-tech processing capacity that sustains those jobs. The chickens and cows which are brought in by the thousands daily smell bad but their purchase contributes to the markets all across the Midwest. The money that the company brings to the local economy helps restore houses and stimulate business growth. It buys the lawn mowers that keep the yards looking nice. It buys the bicycles that keep the kids happy. And overall it keeps the town alive. It has undoubtedly contributed to the prosperity of the town.

Ironically, native Iowans are a small minority in the labor force which has sparked this economic growth. The bulk of the employees are immigrants. The reason is two fold: the wage and the type of work. For mid-westerners, the specific combination offered at Agriprocessors continues to be undesirable, and immigrants enthusiastically fill the void. This is true for meat packaging companies all across the country. Americans are more likely to take less rigorous jobs in the service industry at comparable pay over menial labor jobs in factories. To understand the full weight of this preference, its necessary to take an intimate look at the operations of a meat packing plant.

Agriprocessors is in the business of slaughtering animals. When the market demands thousands of beefsteaks and chicken breasts, industry captains like the Rubashkins, rush to meet demand. Meeting demand means slaughtering more animals which is a job saturated in blood, sweat, stink and toil. The real rigors of raising and processing food have been overlooked in our age of abundance. The difficulty of producing a neatly packaged teriyaki beef jerky stick is more than monetary cost. It requires hundred of hard working participants willing to wade in the smelly business of killing and processing animals. The more we eat, the more they kill. The more we are willing to pay, the more incentive there is for business growth.

The work takes place in giant brick freezer with many rooms. Its designed to chill chicken and beef but it chills humans bodies with equal capacity. The walls are brick reinforced with steel. The girders are visible in the ceiling, with no attention paid to aesthetic value. The lights are florescent and there are no windows. Beef carcasses hang in long rows on rails lubricated by blackened vegetable grease. Thousands of animals meet their fate by way of knives, pneumatic scissors, buzz saws, shrink wrap and cardboard boxes in the process of fulfilling the larger purpose of feeding human beings. The neat utility inspired environment is coupled with a vast complexity of machinery. The pneumatic scissors look like alien transformer hands. There are giant steel vats full of hot dog mix, buzz saws with slide-able tables, splitter saws with elevator stands and knives of every variety: bendable, 5,6, or 9 inches with specialized sharpeners. Every machine is made of shiny stainless steel and every table conveyor is made of white plastic with easily disassembled parts for the sake of cleaning blood and guts.

The beef section is divided roughly into five parts: the kill, the kill floor, the cooler, boning, and shipping. This is the modern day structure of a beef processing plant. Its generally the same all across the country. And it is just as gruesome and shocking to animal lovers in one plant as it is the next. Even for those that work in the plant and are acquainted with the industry, certain portions remain unpleasant. One such place is the kill. Due to the unsavory quality of the kill, the number of people who have to see it is minimized. It is a closed off portion of the plant where the head, hide and hocks are removed. The kill floor then begins the long process of disassembling parts. The disassembly line splits the animal, removes the guts and starts cutting individual parts in a step-by-step line of workers using different tools. The insides are then put in a stainless steel wheel barrel and dumped into a conveyor, which loads them on a truck. The carcasses are then put in the cooler to chill. Six days a week thousands of steers are processed this way. In the same way that a mail man might have to face the never ending piles of correspondence and parcels, a blue collar meat packer has to face the never ending line of live animals that the hungry masses demand dead. And although, the kill floor worker understands that everyday familiarity brings desensitization, the site of hundreds of animals dying in a mater of hours will never be pleasant to the casual observer.

A common Iowa raised, corn-finished steer can weigh anywhere between fourteen hundred and sixteen hundred pounds. That means sixteen hundred pounds of work: Sixteen hundred pounds of splitting, deboning, cutting, weighing, sorting, boxing and transporting. These are chores that require hard work and expertise from many specialized participants. A butcher or factory worker must have coordination and strength in his hands in order to be efficient and profitable for the company. Whether he is operating a knife, saw or automated machine, precise and strong movements are always valuable. That strength and coordination only comes through long hours of toil, in the brutal cold, and in the mindless repetition of the assembly line. If three hundred cows are killed per day that means six hundred tri-tips, flanks, sirloins, ribeyes, eyerounds, tenderloins and six hundred of every other cut that exists. For the meat cutters on the assembly line, those six hundred pieces are an everyday fact of life that have to be tackled one at a time over and over again at the expense of aching backs and sore hands.

If the market has set the wage for meat factory work at $9.00 per hour who will take it? Who will make up the work force for Aarons emerging business in rural Iowa? Will the unemployed Americans in Detroit, St Louis, Chicago and Cleveland flock to Iowa and establish roots? We know American kids don’t dream of one day growing up to be heavy chuck boners or kosher devainers. They don’t even know what the words mean. Working these jobs requires a certain amount of desperation that Americans dont have due to a culture of wealth and an abundance of service industry jobs. The American worker has choices. The immigrant does not. Non-English speaking, non-native, illegal immigrants are the perfect candidates for factory work because they lack alternative work opportunities. They embody the proper amount of desperation necessary to withstand the everyday rigors.

Should we change labor practices in the US to encourage more Americans to participate in the growth of our agricultural industry? Its unrealistic to think that butchering animals can be made into a comfortable job based on our current middle class understanding of comfort. It will always be hard work even with the most sophisticated of machinery. The only way to get Americans into these jobs is increased pay. But paying more for workers means paying more at the grocery story. Is this something Americans are willing to sacrifice for? Another necessary sacrifice would be increased funding for agencies that protect our borders and fight black market labor practices.

Regardless of their legality, immigrants are servicing the needs of the American people by working in factories. They do jobs we would prefer not to do. We receive the benefits of their labor in the form of low food prices. But we don’t have to do the work. There is nothing inherently immoral with this preference for immigrant labor. But we must recognize their existence and give them legal status. Beyond that, we must learn to appreciate them. In an era when the local butcher has been replaced by thousands of immigrants working specialized jobs in dark corners of factories, we no longer see the source of our meat. And we are no longer appreciative of the labor involved in its preparation.

Agriprocessors deserves criticism for not recognizing the origins of its workforce. But its not a problem limited to them; its an American problem. In a country flooded with immigrant labor, the law is widely disregarded and the problem is ignored for convenience sake. The American people have to make a choice which they have neglected: Is ridding our country of immigrant labor so important that we are willing to pay more for agriculture and manufactured goods? And will we also give up our marketing, sales, financial service, engineering, medical service and white-collar jobs to work at a factory at competitive pay? Whichever form immigration reform takes, we cannot lose sight of the positive impact illegal immigrant have made to our economy. Rather than self-righteously uprooting the communities they have formed in the United States, we should recognize our share of responsibility in allowing them to form. An amnesty project is in order regardless of the political difficulty.


Hi! My name is Matthew Halbe.

I'm a web developer working at Vistaprint in Silver Spring Maryland. I have four kids, August, Liesel, Levi and Clementine, and a wonderful wife, Dory.

I spent 6 years as an enlisted soldier in the Army before coming out to the DC area for school and work.

My main interests are web development, US-Iran Relations and documentary films.

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