Premium Standard Farms, Tyson, MoArk, Cargill, and Smithfield talk a good game. When they want permission to build processing plants and to contract with farmers to build CAFOs (contained animal feeding operations), the mantra they repeat to the community is: JOBS. We’ll bring lots of jobs. That’s a siren song in depressed rural areas.
And they are telling the truth. Sort of. Those processing plants need workers. Trouble is, as it always seems to turn out, farmers make lousy factory workers. Sure, some of them try it, but few last long at it. So the CAFOs come in, drive the independent hog farmers and chicken farmers out of existence, and then the farmers, many of them, end up migrating to the cities to look for work.
But you needn’t be concerned that those processing plants stand idle for lack of busy hands. Workers are easy to come by. In Premium Standard Farms plants, which are in Mercer, Putnam, and Sullivan counties on the central, northern border of the state, 55 percent of the workers–as of five years ago–had Hispanic surnames. The percentage might be higher now. Some of those workers are legal. Others ….
The beauty of hiring Latinos is that they don’t file suits with OSHA, they don’t complain, in fact many don’t speak English. I suppose you could call the turnover a downside: 125 percent in any given year. But big ag swats that difficulty aside with a steady supply of new workers. After all, the work requires no skill.
Ken Midkiff, my Sierra Club source for this posting, calls it a “confirmed rumor” that replacement workers are brought up from border towns like El Paso by the bus load. The drivers get $100 a head. Word gets around in places like Salinas, says Midkiff, and workers just show up looking for jobs.
They get paid maybe five or six bucks an hour, and the company provides their living accommodations, such as they are. Midkiff visited the housing that Tyson provides its workers in McDonald County, in the southwest corner of the state. He said that the company takes $50 a week out of the workers’ paychecks–that’s $200 a month–for Acorn trailers. Most of them had no electricity, running water or bathrooms. A few had natural gas.
The corporation can point out, though, that the primitive conditions are hardly its fault. Utility companies don’t like to turn on power for those trailers because of the high turnover rate. People leave and don’t pay the bill.
The farmers that sign contracts to raise the hogs and chickens aren’t all that much better off than the factory workers. CAFO owners have to build the barns and flush systems at their own expense to corporate specifications. The contract they sign stipulates what will be done on any given day and what days hogs will be picked up. The hogs must meet a weight standard or the corporation penalizes the farmer. The arrangement is so weighted in the company’s favor that the CAFO owner ends up being nothing more than a hog janitor.
The community at large fares no better than those directly tied to Smithfield, Cargill et.al. In fact, the larger community pays a considerable price, as I’ll explain in my next posting.