Last month Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raided four chicken processing plants in Mississippi and arrested 650 people for alleged immigration violations. Lots of attention has focused, rightly so, on the children of the workers’ who were detained and the communities where the raids happened.
Less attention has been focused on what will happen to the workers who weren’t arrested at those worksites after the raids. I think workers at those plants will experience more injuries for two reasons
In December 2006, ICE launched a major raid at the Swift Beef plant in Grand Island, Nebraska. Our firm had several clients working in that plant at the time. I remember my clients reporting to me that they were forced to work faster and harder to make up for the employees lost in the ICE raid.
Meat packing employees are already at a relatively high risk for overuse injuries. That risk will likely be heightened if employees are required to work longer and faster in order to make up for employees lost to an ICE raid. Studies show that newer employees are more vulnerable to injuries. The employees who replace the arrested employees will likely be more vulnerable to injury as well.
Meatpacking has the reputation of being a low-skill job. I don’t think that is the case. I know at least in beef packing there are so-called “show stopper” or hourly positions that can nearly shutdown a plant if those “show stopper” employees don’t come to work. Assuming those some “show stopper” employees were arrested, existing employees are likely being trained to perform those jobs or they will be performed by supervisors. Effectively those current employees would be new employees because they would be performing an unfamiliar job.
There were likely workers who were arrested in the raid that had workers’ compensation claims. I don’t know what the law is in Mississippi, but in Nebraska immigration status has little effect on entitlement to workers’ compensation benefits.
There has been some discussion that the raids were a form of retaliation for workers at Koch Foods in Mortion, Mississippi who obtained a $3.5 million settlement from the EEOC for a hostile workplace. I agree that the threat of immigration enforcement does intimidate workers from exercising their rights at work.
But on the other hand, any employer who colludes with ICE to arrest part of their workforce in order to intimidate their workers is cutting off their nose to spite their face. Media coverage of the raids focused on the fact that food processors have sought out an immigrant workforce as a way to cut costs and limit the power of unions. Fortunately, in Nebraska, many meatpacking plants are unionized despite the challegnes posed to unionization in rural areas with a very diverse workforce. It is difficult to discern the motivations of employers, but it could be reasonable to presume that an employer that heavily relies on immigrant labor wouldn’t want to have part of that labor force taken away by an ICE raid. Other employers who weren’t subject to the EEOC settlement at Koch Foods were also raided by ICE.
Meatpackers are in the business of slaughtering and processing animals for meat. Sure those employers may save some money by discouraging workers’ compensation and unfair employment claims through the threat of immigration raids, but the packinghouses need to keep the chain moving. That’s harder to do when they are short-staffed due to an ICE raid.
Plants that were hit with ICE raids are going to be hard pressed to return to pre-raid production levels overnight. That’s why the remaining employees will probably have to work harder, possibly in unfamiliar jobs and likely be more vulnerable to injury.