Franco Ordoñez, Charlotte Observer, August 12, 2009
During a break at a House of Raeford Farms plant in eastern North Carolina, dozens of workers in hairnets and rubber boots mingled outside the large gray factory among scattered turkey feathers.
It was a typical sight except for one thing: Most of the poultry processing workers were African American–not Latino, as they have been for much of the past decade.
House of Raeford, one of the nation’s top chicken and turkey producers, appears to be transforming its workforce amid a court fight over federal charges that a subsidiary knowingly hired illegal immigrants.
Current and former workers at the company’s main plant in Raeford say the firm stopped hiring immigrants in recent months and let hundreds more go for using fake documents.
Once more than 80 percent Latino, the production floor at the Raeford plant is now up to 70 percent African American, workers said.
N.C. workers told the Observer that the company appears to be going down a list of Hispanic employees and firing them in small numbers, so as not to interrupt production. Human resources officials also have been given “immigration training” on how to comply with the law, according to a union representative.
House of Raeford has not, however, signed up for a free federal program, known as E-Verify, that allows companies to verify applicants’ Social Security numbers, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
House of Raeford declined to comment on recent questions about how its workforce has changed. But the company said prisoners make up less than 1/2 of 1 percent of its N.C. workforce–and slightly more in South Carolina.
Hispanics being fired
Isabel Hernandez said she was fired on April 21 for working with fake documents. Hernandez and others described what she saw as an organized effort to push illegal immigrants out of the plant–a few at a time–so as not to draw much attention or disrupt operations.
The shortage of workers has curtailed production, current workers said. One of the Raeford factories, an older plant, has cut operations to four days a week, workers said. Last year, House of Raeford announced it would begin reducing the number of birds it processed by 5 percent.
But now, with unemployment so high, more Americans are seeking jobs they previously avoided. American-born workers in Raeford say there’s no excuse for the company to rely on undocumented labor.