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Meat Industry Turns to Refugees for Labor

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Meat Industry Turns to Refugees for Labor

Ba Shwe, 44, left his wife and kids on Chicago’s North Side to work in a Tyson plant in Garden City, Kansas. (WBEZ/Chip Mitchell)

A lot of the meat and poultry on U.S. dinner tables is cut and packaged by undocumented immigrants. But federal enforcement is shaking things up. Many packinghouses are turning to a different pool of cheap laborers. These workers have immigration papers. They’re war refugees. In Chicago, Arkansas-based Tyson Foods has been recruiting Burmese refugees to work in plants as far away as Kansas. The Burmese desperately need jobs. But it’s not clear they know what they’re getting in to.

Seventeen people live in this three-bedroom apartment on Chicago’s North Side.

These former farmers speak Karen, a language of southeastern Myanmar, the Asian country formerly known as Burma. They spent 11 years in a refugee camp in Thailand before arriving in Chicago a year ago.

BA SHWE: (Speaking in Karen about arriving September 22, 2007).

Forty-four-year-old Ba Shwe and his wife brought five children here. After months without steady work, Ba Shwe heard about jobs paying $11.75 an hour in a place called Garden City. That’s a town in western Kansas where a Tyson Foods beef plant has hired hundreds of refugees. In April, Ba Shwe says he and four friends left their families and headed for Garden City.

BA SHWE: (Speaking in Karen about passing out).

On his third day at work there, though, Ba Shwe says he passed out. He and five other workers ended up in the hospital.

It turns out an equipment malfunction had released a spray that was supposed to sanitize the beef carcasses. But Ba Shwe says he never learned what he had inhaled and didn’t get reimbursed for lost wages. A Karen-speaking advocate could have helped him figure it out, but there wasn’t one.

Levita Rohlman directs Garden City’s only resettlement group, the Catholic Agency for Migration and Refugee Services.

ROHLMAN: Tyson brings them here, wanting them to go to work, but then they’re kind of on their own.

With just one other staff member, Rohlman says her agency can’t do much for the Burmese who’ve trickled in over the last year to work for Tyson.

ROHLMAN: If I wanted to hire somebody, there’s nobody to be hired. It’s even hard to find a good interpreter.

That’s one reason Ed Silverman doesn’t like Tyson recruiting Burmese to leave Chicago. Silverman heads Illinois’s Bureau of Refugee and Immigrant Services.

SILVERMAN: They have no conception of what meatpacking is and what that work is like. They have no understanding of the safety hazards. If Tyson were going through one of the resettlement agencies, the resettlement agency would be providing that kind of information.

Silverman says moving refugees to a small town limits their access to language instruction, medical care and treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.

SILVERMAN: My concern is that they not be exploited.

Many industry observers say meatpacking companies are turning to refugees because immigration raids have made it more risky to employ undocumented workers.

In Chicago, Tyson has recruited Bosnian and Somali refugees and, more recently, the Burmese. The company has convinced some to relocate hundreds of miles away.

A Tyson spokesman insists the recruiting has nothing to do with the raids. He says most of the company’s recent hires from Chicago are not refugees and that Tyson looks for anyone who wants to work long-term for competitive pay and benefits. Those benefits include health insurance and a retirement plan. At the Kansas plant, Tyson also helps new employees with starting costs for things like housing and food.

TALAMANTE: Everybody wants a paycheck and the best paycheck that you can get, you’re gonna find that job.

Fabian Talamante of Refugee Services of Texas helps Somali and Burmese employees of a Tyson plant in Amarillo. Talamante says Tyson warns the refugees it won’t be easy.

TALAMANTE: They go through a thorough orientation before they hire them and explain that there’s blood, it’s hard work, they’re going to be working with knives, and so they give them the opportunity to accept the job or not accept it.

ambi: Living room

After getting out of the Kansas hospital, Ba Shwe went back to the production line. But he couldn’t see moving his wife and kids to a place with few refugee services. So he came back to Chicago last month.

BA SHWE: (Speaking in Karen about trying to get another job).

Now Ba Shwe is trying to get a job at a Tyson plant closer to home. He says the meatpacking jobs pay well and he hasn’t been able to find any other steady work near Chicago.

I’m Chip Mitchell, Chicago Public Radio.

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