Undercover in a Chicken Factory
For immigrant workers in an Arkansas poultry plant, even a bad job is a labor of love -- until the bosses crank up the power
Just as Americans move abroad seeking a new life, the United States attracts expatriates from other countries. Many of these new immigrants have wound up working in meat plants throughout the American heartland. In the spirit of famous muckraker Upton Sinclair, who in 1904 worked undercover alongside immigrants in a Chicago meatpacking plant before writing his classic novel The Jungle, University of Arkansas anthropologist Steve Striffler got a job at a modern poultry processing plant to see what it's like. -- The Editors
Springdale, Arkansas, is an unremarkable working-class city at the center of the most productive poultry-producing region in the world. It is also home to the corporate headquarters of Tyson Foods. The company's Northwest Arkansas Job Center is a small building that resembles a government office. A sign in Spanish near the receptionist's desk says, "Do not leave children unattended." Another warns, "Thank you for your interest in our company, Tyson Foods, but please bring your own interpreter."
The receptionist seems surprised by my presence. "Sorry, hon, there are no openings for a mechanic." I assure her I'm not qualified to be a mechanic and that I want to work on a production line in one of the area's processing plants. She hands me a thick packet of forms and asks, "You want to work on the line?"
I can understand her confusion. The secretary and I are the only Americans, the only white folk, and the only English speakers in the room. Spanish predominates, but a couple in the corner converses in Lao and a threesome from the Marshall Islands in a Polynesian language. In less than two decades, the poultry industry has drawn the "workers of the world" to the American South, a region that saw few foreign immigrants during the 20th century. As I know from my research as an anthropologist, Latin Americans first arrived in northwest Arkansas in the late 1980s seeking these jobs. Today, about three-quarters of the workers in the plant are Latin American, with Southeast Asians and Marshallese accounting for many of the rest. Workers born in the United States are few and far between.
Tyson processes job applicants like it processes poultry. The emphasis is on quantity not quality. No one at the Job Center spends more than a minute looking at my application, and no single person takes the time to review it all. There are few pleasantries, but there is also no bullshit. I tell the interviewer I want a job at a processing plant, he makes a quick call, and five minutes later I have a job. Someone has already called my references, and I pass both the drug test and the physical. I'm Tyson material.
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