Federal agents carried out one of the largest immigration raids in recent history this week, arresting nearly 700 workers at chicken processing plants in Mississippi.
But you can still buy a rotisserie bird at your local supermarket tonight for less than $10.
So far, the government crackdown has had little effect on the wider food processing industry, a dangerous business that is heavily reliant on immigrant labor.
The Trump administration says its crackdown helps discourage illegal immigration. But workers' advocates warn it leaves vulnerable employees open to exploitation and unsafe working conditions.
"Americans really need to think about where their chicken and where their beef and their pork comes from and really demand that the industry raise labor standards," says Debbie Berkowitz, who directs a health and safety program at the National Employment Law Project.
Authorities raided seven Mississippi poultry plants on Wednesday, arresting 680 people suspected of living in the country illegally. So far, no charges have been brought against the five companies that run the plants, although federal officials say that could change as the investigation is ongoing.
The Trump administration has focused considerable resources on workplace immigration probes. Investigations and audits more than tripled last year, and arrests of workers rose even more. But there was no comparable increase in the number of employers cited.
"These enforcement actions are always aimed toward the workforces," says Ted Genoways, whose 2014 book, The Chain, focuses on the food processing industry. "No one ever seems to ask how it is that a company comes to employ a factory full of people who do not have legal immigration status."
Genoways says that is reminiscent of other high-profile raids on a meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa, in 2008 and at half a dozen Swift plants in 2006.
"In all those cases, there were work stoppages, huge numbers of people swept up, families divided, but little to no consequences for the people who did the hiring," he says. "And those plants were back up and in production in fairly short order."
Koch Foods, one of the companies raided in Mississippi this week, said in a statement that it closed for one shift on Wednesday but planned to keep operating to "minimize customer impact." The company also advertised a hiring fair in Mississippi next Monday and advised job applicants to bring two forms of ID.
Koch Foods (no relation to Charles and David Koch, the majority shareholders of Koch Industries) — paid nearly $4 million last year to settle a complaint brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Latina workers at the company's plant in Morton, Miss., accused the company of both racial and sexual harassment. The company admitted no wrongdoing.
Another of the companies raided this week, Peco Foods, had two workers suffer amputations last year at a chicken processing plant in Arkansas.
The chicken industry boasts that its processing plants have gotten safer. The rate of workplace injuries was cut by half between 2003 and 2016. But poultry workers are still twice as likely to suffer serious injuries and six times as likely to contract a workplace illness as other private sector employees.
Berkowitz, who was chief of staff at OSHA during the Obama administration, says those numbers are likely understated, because of declining government inspections.
"The industry is totally dependent on finding workers who will not raise issues and who, to a degree, live in fear of the company and they'll just keep their head down and do the work," Berkowitz says. "For the last 30 years that's been immigrant labor."
A quarter-century ago, journalist Tony Horwitz documented the miserable conditions in a chicken processing plant in a Pulitzer Prize-winning story for The Wall Street Journal. Industry observers say little has changed since then.
"On a good day, the work is repetitive and stressful," Genoways says. "On a bad day, if there's a single mistake made by anyone in a group, there's a high risk of accident."
If anything, the pressure on workers has only increased, as processing lines move ever faster.
"Meatpacking remains one of the most dangerous jobs in America," Genoways says. "And because of that, for really more than a century it's been a job that's very often done by first-generation immigrants who are just looking for a foot in the door and a way up the economic ladder in America."
A previous Web version of this story misspelled Tony Horwitz's last name as Horowitz.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Federal immigration officials arrested nearly 700 workers at chicken processing plants in Mississippi. But you can still buy a rotisserie bird at your local supermarket tonight for less than $10. Administration officials say this kind of enforcement discourages illegal immigration, but critics say it just leaves undocumented workers even more vulnerable to exploitation. NPR's Scott Horsley joins us now.
Welcome to the studio, Scott.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Hi, Audie.
CORNISH: So after this roundup, what kind of penalties have the chicken companies faced?
HORSLEY: None so far, although authorities say that could change because this is still an open investigation. This was a particularly high-profile operation, but it's kind of typical of what we've been seeing in the Trump administration. Last year, there was a 300% increase in worksite immigration investigations and an even bigger increase in worksite arrest. But at the same time, we saw no increase in the number of charges brought against employers. Ted Genoways wrote a book about the food processing industry called "The Chain." He told me this is reminiscent of high-profile raids at half a dozen Swift meatpacking plants back in 2006.
TED GENOWAYS: In all of those cases, there were work stoppages, huge numbers of people swept up, families divided but little to no consequences for the people who did the hiring. And those plants were back up and in production in fairly short order.
HORSLEY: And we're seeing signs of that in Mississippi as well. Koch Foods, one of the companies involved, said in a statement it closed for one shift yesterday but plans to keep operating to minimize customer impact. And Koch also announced plans for a hiring fair in Mississippi on Monday. And, Audie, the company said applicants should bring two forms of ID.
CORNISH: Yeah, Koch has already been cited for workplace discrimination. So what can you tell us about that and the other companies involved in the raids?
HORSLEY: Yeah. Last year, Koch Foods - which, by the way, is no relation to Koch brothers - paid nearly $4 million to settle a complaint brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Latino workers at the company's plant there in Morton, Miss., had accused the company of both racial and sexual harassment.
Another of the companies targeted in the raids this week, Peco Foods, had two workers suffer amputations last year. The chicken industry boasted that its processing plants have been getting safer, but poultry workers are still twice as likely to suffer serious injuries and six times as likely to contract a workplace illness as other private sector employees. Debbie Berkowitz is a former OSHA official I spoke with today. She now oversees safety programs for the National Employment Law Center (ph).
DEBBIE BERKOWITZ: The industry is totally dependent on finding workers who will not raise issues and who, to a degree, live in fear of the company. And they'll just keep their head down and do the work. And for the last 30 years, that's been immigrant labor.
HORSLEY: We did see after the Swift raids more than a decade ago some employers did shift to hiring more refugees, for example. But as this week's raid suggest, many of these food processing plants are still heavily dependent on undocumented workers.
CORNISH: Is there a sense that these - the high-profile nature of these raids could change anything in this industry?
HORSLEY: There's really not a lot of change on the horizon. You know, a quarter-century ago, the late journalist Tony Horwitz wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning piece in The Wall Street Journal about the miserable working conditions at a chicken processing plant. And Debbie Berkowitz, who worked with Horowitz on that story, told me today things really haven't changed much since then.
BERKOWITZ: Americans really need to think about where their chicken and where their beef and where their pork comes from and really demand that the industry raise labor standards.
HORSLEY: But if anything, Audie, the industry appears to be moving in the opposite direction. The Agriculture Department is looking at deregulatory moves that would actually speed up processing lines in both beef and pork plants.
CORNISH: That's NPR's Scott Horsley.
Scott, thanks for your reporting.
HORSLEY: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.