Precarity. It defines refugees’ and economic migrants’ lives. Violence, trauma and poverty caused them to flee their countries, and they live in rural communities, areas most Americans dub “flyover country.” Workers from around the world toil in the most dangerous profession in the United States: meatpacking.
COVID-19 in U.S. packing plants now stalks migrants. More than 2,000 meatpacking workers have been diagnosed with the new coronavirus. From Sioux Falls, South Dakota, to Columbus Junction, Iowa, to Camilla, Georgia, the majority refugee and economic migrant workforce is getting sick. Some have died.
As an anthropologist of religion and migration, I have spent the past eight years researching meatpacking in Iowa and have observed the inner workings of the plants. The predominantly African and Central American workers slaughter, slice and package the meat, working elbow to elbow in extremely tight quarters. They work in a hyper-efficient industry, processing, in the case of hogs, anywhere from 7,000 to 20,000 animals a day.
To accomplish this feat of mass slaughter, companies require them to adhere to strict movement guidelines, lest they injure themselves on the swiftly moving blades of their coworkers. Mere inches separate line workers, a necessary distance in order to meet the global demand for meat.
Most consumers would be heartened to know that the required hygienic and sanitary conditions of the Food Safety and Inspection Service have made many of today’s packing plants specimens of disease control. Even so, diseases such as COVID-19 spread easily because of the intensely close quarters of the plants.
Most meatpackers are immigrants
Today’s meatpackers, employees of the vast protein industry, are victims of trauma and dislocation, and they hail from some of the most troubled places in the world.
Since May 12, 2008, and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids in Postville, Iowa, the industry has turned to E-Verified workers. They are diversity visa lottery winners such as Maurice and Benita Batubenga from South Africa, a middle-age married couple who fled urban gangs that were threatening their three sons. Today the couple lives in eastern Iowa, and Maurice works at the Columbus Junction Tyson Foods hog processing plant as a hide ripper, where more than 180 of the 1,400 workers have tested positive for the virus.
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Refugees such as Mugombekere "James" Mugereke, who worked his way up from the kill floor to the work of a translator, fled unimaginable conditions in the Democratic Republic of Congo with his wife and daughters.
Today’s meatpackers are husbands and wives like Jorge and Esmelda Zapata, economic refugees from Central Mexico, devoted Latino Roman Catholics with three boys. They work opposite shifts so that one of them is always with their children. They work in a bloody, dangerous industry and live paycheck to paycheck, but refuse to let you pay for your meal. They take great pride in the hard work that they do to feed their families and the rest of us.
One of the most dangerous jobs in America
Despite recent safety measures and improvements, meatpacking remains one of the most dangerous jobs in America. My friends have shown me the scars they carry on their bodies from slipped blades and knives; the gnarled knuckles and swollen ankles that are byproducts of the repetitive motions of assembly-line labor.
The recent influx of COVID-19 into meatpacking plants across the country has made being a meatpacker more dangerous than ever, yet the global demand for meat continues unabated. Plants have been closed temporarily, but Columbus Junction's plant has reopened, resuming "limited operations." One wonders just how safe it is for the workers.
We continue to think of the working class, most especially migrants and refugees from Central America, as fungible commodities. The mean annual salary for meatpackers in the United States is about $29,600. On average, line workers start at $13/hour, and, if they remain on the job for six months, earn their way into health insurance.
The high turnover rates at a typical plant means that approximately a quarter of meatpacking workers are uninsured. They are today’s working poor. Their labor provides not only for their families here in the United States, but also family members back home.
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Since 1906, and the publication of Upton Sinclair’s exposé “The Jungle,” the safety of our food has consistently taken priority over the safety of those who work in the food industry. Our concerns about industrial agriculture are merited. However, the COVID-19 pandemic shines a light on the precarious existence of our nation’s meatpacking workers. The gaping chasm that exists between U.S. immigration policy and the global demand for meat shines a light on the precarity of meatpackers. They deserve our empathy and support for the essential work that they do for our families and our economies.
Kristy Nabhan-Warren is professor of religious studies and gender, women’s and sexuality Studies at the University of Iowa. She is the author of the forthcoming book "Cornbelt America: The Work of Faith in the Heartland." Follow her on Twitter: @KristyNabhan