Days after immigration agents arrested 680 Latino workers in a massive workplace sting at seven Mississippi chicken processing plants, job seekers flocked to an employment fair Monday in hopes of filling some of those now-empty positions.
Koch Foods, based near Chicago, held the job fair to recruit new workers at one of its Morton plants after Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents on Wednesday arrested 243 workers suspected of working without legal authorization.
While the raids at seven plants were unprecedented, chicken processing facilities are normally plagued by heavy turnover and ravenously seek employees. Koch spokesman Jim Gilliland said Monday that job fairs are a “frequent occurrence.”
“They are part of normal efforts to employ,” Gilliand wrote in an email. “In this environment of relatively full employment, most businesses are looking for qualified applicants; Koch is no different.”
The work is hard and sometimes dangerous. Butchering and packaging chicken, from hanging up live chickens to pulling off skin, to cutting with very sharp knives, to boxing up chicken, much of it done in near-freezing temperatures. The line moves fast and people repeat the same motions over and over.
That draining work, at relatively low wages, leads many people to quit. So chicken plants are always hiring. Angela Stuesse, an anthropology professor at the University of North Carolina who spent years among labor organizers in Morton and nearby towns, said the desire for cheap, docile labor led poultry firms to begin recruiting Spanish-speakers in the late 1990s. At first, Stuesse said they were people who could legally work. But they were eventually replaced by Mexicans, Guatemalans and others who often lacked legal working papers. Later, came a wave from Argentina, Uruguay and Peru.
The Koch plant last year agreed to pay $3.75 million to settle a federal Equal Opportunity Employment Commission lawsuit alleging that managers sexually harassed female employees and discriminated against them because of their race and national origin. Citing a pattern of immigration enforcement actions after companies got into trouble over working conditions, many Democrats and union supporters in recent days have asked whether the raids had something to do with Koch’s troubles.
“It’s more than just coincidental,” said House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat who represents areas including other plants that were raised, but not Koch. He and other House members raised the issue in a Friday letter demanding information about the raids from Attorney General William Barr and Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan
Gilliland, the Koch spokesman, denied that the raid was related to the EEOC settlement
But whatever triggered the raid, it could have long-term effects on the labor pool. In some places, raids have led immigrants to move away. And if they stay, Stuesse said raids tend to keep immigrants terrified of advocating for better wages and working conditions.
“It tells immigrant workers that if they speak up, their worst fears will come true,” she said.
According to a statement released by Koch Foods, the company participates in the government’s E-Verify program and strives to ensure its employees are authorized to work in the United States, it said. However, the company said, its workers could have obtained stolen identities from people who are authorized to work in the country and presented them as their own.
“When Koch Foods puts such (workers) through the E-Verify system, the system indicates that the worker is authorized because, unbeknownst to Koch Foods and the E-Verify system, the information that the worker has provided pertains to the stolen identify of an authorized worker,” the statement said.
“Federal immigration and discrimination law requires Koch Foods to accept documents that appear authentic,” the company said.
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