All three books reached the same conclusion: What Trump has described as an immigrant “invasion” was actually a corporate recruitment drive for poor, vulnerable, undocumented, often desperate workers.
One of the poultry plants that Stuesse explored, in the small town of Morton, Mississippi, was raided last week. B. C. Rogers, the company that owned the plant in 1994, launched a hiring drive that year called “The Hispanic Project.” Its goal was to replace African American workers, who were seeking a union, with immigrant workers who’d be more pliant. It placed ads in Miami newspapers, arranged transportation for immigrants, and charged them for housing in dilapidated trailers. Within four years, it had brought roughly 5,000 mainly Latino workers to Morton and another meatpacking town in Mississippi, enlarging their population by more than 50 percent. The poultry industry expanded throughout the rural South during the 1990s, drawn by the warm climate and the absence of labor unions. Tens of thousands of immigrant workers soon arrived to cut meat. Charlotte S. Alexander, an associate professor at the Georgia State College of Law put it succinctly: “In the poultry industry, location is a labor practice.”
The immigrant workers arrested in Mississippi the other day were earning about $12.50 an hour. Adjusted for inflation, during the late 1970s, the wages of meatpacking workers in Iowa and Colorado were about $50 an hour.
If you believe the numbers compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the injury rate among meatpacking workers has greatly declined in recent years. I don’t believe them. During the George W. Bush administration, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) decided that cumulative trauma injuries no longer had to be recorded separately by meatpacking firms. As a result, from 2001 to 2003, the total number of injuries miraculously dropped by one-third. A few years ago, the U.S. Government Accountability Office admitted that meat and poultry workers “may underreport injuries and illnesses because they fear losing their jobs, and employers may underreport because of concerns about potential costs.” One study suggested that two-thirds of the injuries in American meatpacking plants are never officially recorded.
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Even if you accept the accuracy of the official statistics, meatpacking remains an unusually dangerous and unpleasant occupation, with an injury rate much higher than that of other manufacturing jobs. Poultry workers stand close to one another with sharp knives, repeating the same motion again and again more than 15,000 times in a single shift, slicing birds as they pass on conveyor belts every two seconds. A 2013 investigation by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found that 42 percent of the workers at a poultry plant in South Carolina were suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome. The work is bloody, difficult, and full of potential harms. Lacerations are commonplace, and the high prevalence of fecal bacteria in poultry plants increases the risk that wounds will become infected. A study of poultry workers in Maryland and Virginia found that they were 32 times more likely than other residents of the area to be carriers of antibiotic-resistant E. coli. Poultry workers suffer from respiratory ailments, chemical burns, fractures, concussions, eye damage, sprains, strains, concussions, and exposure to toxic fumes. Reporting on the industry for The New Yorker, Michael Grabell counted more than 750 amputations from 2010 to 2017.