Raids Could Force Meatpackers to Raise Worker Pay

AP, December 6, 2008

The kosher slaughterhouse whose work force was depleted by a mass immigration raid in May has struggled to remain open because of a problem that few companies in this economy have: It can’t find enough workers.

Since 389 of its 1,000 employees were arrested in the immigration raid, Agriprocessors Inc. has tried multiple recruitment tactics to replenish staff at its plant in Postville. It hired employment firms, recruited homeless people from Texas and even brought in workers from the tiny island nation of Palau.

But the plant hasn’t been able to bring its staffing to more than half of pre-raid levels, causing Agriprocessors to cut its production drastically and then suspend it completely. After filing for bankruptcy protection, the company last week managed to restart its poultry line with a skeleton crew.

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Meatpackers across the country face staffing shortages if immigration agents continue to conduct such mass raids. Unless the administration of President-elect Barack Obama intervenes, companies could be left to choose between two risky alternatives: hire illegal workers and chance a raid or increase salaries to attract and retain legal workers at a cost of higher consumer prices.

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The action at Agriprocessors followed December 2006 immigration raids at Swift & Co. plants in Iowa and six other states that resulted in nearly 1,300 arrests. Swift said those raids cost as much as $50 million because of delays in returning to full production and ultimately led to the selling of the company, based in Greeley, Colo., to the Brazilian meat company JBS S.A.

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Industry officials downplay the size and significance of the illegal immigrant work force. They said companies were obligated to hire eligible employees. Janet Riley, a spokeswoman for the American Meat Institute, called the practice of hiring legal workers “good business sense.”

But others in the industry acknowledge that it takes hard work and more money to retain a legal work force.

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The meatpacking industry has long relied heavily on immigrant labor, as people new to the country filled jobs that required almost no education, minimal language skills and little training. But some blame wage reductions and a decline in union membership for changing the industry in the past several decades.

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“The market sets the wages,” she [Janet Riley] said. “Like all employers, meat industry employers pay what is required to attract workers.”

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