The U.S. poultry industry received considerable national news coverage this year when an immigration raid on chicken plants throughout Mississippi resulted in the detention of 680 immigrant workers. Yet while we know that all across the country industrial agriculture runs on the exploitation of low-wage undocumented workers, and though we benefit from rock-bottom prices on boneless, skinless chicken subsidized by their labor, Americans seldom ask how immigrants came to dominate the jobs picking, slaughtering, packing and serving our food.
Too often, any discussion of this topic is reduced to a stale debate about whether immigrants “take American jobs” or, conversely, are doing the work “Americans don’t want.” This facile binary masks the calculated and often immoral actions of those in charge of the industrial food system to keep labor costs as low as they can get away with — actions that, since the early 1990s, have included the strategic recruitment of immigrants into their labor force.
During that decade, global demand for poultry was growing at a fast clip. The industry was able to capitalize on the simultaneous concerns about heart health and demand for fast food, and Americans’ consumption of poultry skyrocketed — from 58 pounds per person annually in 1980 to 111 pounds today, according to the National Chicken Council. As the industry vertically integrated, corporate giants began buying up locally owned plants and production expanded to 24 hours a day.
At the same time, while the poultry industry flourished and the economy grew, wages and working conditions deteriorated. As a result, the labor movement devoted attention and invested resources into organizing the industry, building upon two decades of efforts by poultry workers to improve wages and working conditions, and worker demands began to gain traction.
In Mississippi, wary of the mounting power of its majority African American workforce and eager to increase the labor supply for an expanding industry, poultry processors sought an alternative. As early as 1994, they actively recruited Latin American immigrant workers from Florida and Texas, offering transportation, housing and an implicit promise to ignore immigration status in exchange for their compliant, cheap labor.
In the eyes of plant management, immigrant workers were an ideal fix. Their seemingly endless supply filled the growing production lines, weakened workers’ bargaining power and bolstered profit margins.
Structurally vulnerable and unable to communicate fluently in English, new immigrants were initially loath to organize in the plants, undermining ongoing efforts to improve working conditions and collectively demand fairer wages. Early on, some native-born workers blamed the newcomers for organizing setbacks, even making calls that prompted immigration raids in at least two Mississippi poultry towns in the mid-1990s.
But other workers were clear that the onus lay not on individual immigrants, but on the employers themselves.
“Why do they have to recruit immigrants in the first place?” a black worker leader, whose identity is confidential as part of my research, asked me in 2005 when I worked with the Mississippi Poultry Workers’ Center. “It’s so they can show that African American people don’t want to work. But it’s not a true statement. We built this country, working from sunrise to sunset. This country became a superpower on our backs, and we did not inherit one penny.”
African American workers also recognized that the working conditions at the plants seemed designed to deter locals from seeking those jobs. With the U.S. Department of Agriculture regulating the speed of the processing line at a maximum of 140 birds per minute (a cap waived by the Trump administration for processors who request it), workers make the same motion up to 60,000 times per shift, and repetitive strain injuries, acute lacerations and amputations abound.
What’s worse, ample evidence shows that the poultry plants actively discourage and deter injured workers from accessing medical treatment and workers’ compensation. From the perspective of some U.S.-born workers, then, corporations have used immigrant labor to keep wages and working conditions poor. “If they were paying [a living wage], people would be coming from all over the county for those jobs,” one Mississippi woman told historian Laura Helton, who withheld her name to protect her confidentiality.
Over time, as immigrant workers have grown in numbers, they, too, have realized the benefits of organizing in defense of their basic rights. In one Mississippi town, the majority Guatemalan Maya Mam workforce grew the union’s numbers from 270 to 800 members over just two years. In another, workers employed through a third-party labor contractor helped to unionize a plant. While labor organizing remains an uphill battle in the right-to-work South and only 20 percent of the poultry industry is currently unionized, this rate is nearly double the national average.
Moreover, solidarity is on the rise. At the Mississippi Poultry Workers’ Center, immigrant and U.S.-born workers alike were eager to participate in popular education workshops that supported their abilities to recognize parallel experiences with power and oppression and organize across difference. And recent reporting on local residents’ opposition to the raids and support of their co-workers, neighbors and family members provides additional evidence of a growing cohesion among U.S. citizen and immigrant workers.
Given these realities, it is far too simplistic to look at the poultry industry and its concentration of immigrant workers and state that Americans don’t want certain jobs, or that immigrants are doing work Americans won’t do. These frames erase the reality that industrial food production represents the very worst of the capitalist race to the bottom, pushing bodies past their limits for meager pay and few opportunities to improve one’s lot in life.
Similarly, claims that immigrants are taking jobs from Americans obscure the often calculated actions of corporations that have preferred immigrant workers in the quest to lower labor costs and maximize profits for shareholders. The jobs weren’t taken away by the new workers but by the bosses, and most worker leaders themselves reject this propaganda.
Since its inception, the poultry industry has sought out the most vulnerable workers to keep labor costs to a minimum. Doing so has degraded wages and working conditions for all. Exploiting an undocumented workforce capitalizes on the threat of state action (detention, deportation and family separation) to keep workers from mobilizing to improve their lot. In effect, through the criminalization of undocumented work, taxpayers are subsidizing corporate profits, native-born job losses and disinvestment in the community.
As long as compensation and working and living conditions in the United States are marginally better than those they’ve left behind, people will continue to migrate in search of safety and opportunity. And if their work prospects are curtailed sharply by the legal landscape, vulnerability will force them to take the lowest-paid and most undesirable jobs.
Until the poultry industry is forced to address the discrimination, harassment and health and safety concerns that run rampant in its plants, poultry processing work — indeed, every node of our industrial food chain — will continue to be the labor of only the most vulnerable among us.