Refugee help wanted

Peo­ple flee­ing wars fill la­bor vac­uum at poultry plants

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Cindy Car­camo

FRESNO — Taiseer Al Souki spends most days on his feet at a Foster Farms poultry plant, heft­ing ta­ble­sized brown plas­tic boxes and feed­ing them into a ma­chine that cleans them.

He plugs his ears to soften the deaf­en­ing clang of heavy ma­chin­ery as he cy­cles through the same mo­tion for hours on end.

At night, af­ter slump­ing to sleep in ex­haus­tion, the 44-year-old Syr­ian refugee dreams that he’s at the plant, still hoist­ing box af­ter box filled with chicken des­tined for din­ner ta­bles across Amer­ica.

Al Souki does not com­plain. He fled war-torn Syria and worked back­break­ing 12-hour shifts in his home coun­try and Jor­dan be­fore

mak­ing his way to the United States. He is grate­ful for the $10.50 an hour he earns at the poultry plant.

“I like work. I need work,” he said in the smat­ter­ing of English he has picked up. “With­out work, not a man.”

Al Souki needs the work — and em­ploy­ers in the meat­pack­ing in­dus­try say they need work­ers like him. Refugees have be­come in­creas­ingly vi­tal work­ers in an in­dus­try with high turnover. And the grow­ing un­rest and blood­shed in the Mid­dle East and else­where have read­ily sup­plied them in places like the Cen­tral Val­ley.

The refugee and im­mi­grant pop­u­la­tions “cer­tainly have been a sig­nif­i­cant part, an in­te­gral part of our work­force for decades,” said Tom Su­per, a spokesman for the Na­tional Chicken Coun­cil.

It’s dif­fi­cult to know ex­actly how many refugees work in this oc­cu­pa­tion, but roughly one-third of work­ers in the in­dus­try in 2010 were for­eign-born, ac­cord­ing to a peer-re­viewed ar­ti­cle in Choices, a pub­li­ca­tion of the non­profit Agri­cul­tural and Ap­plied Eco­nom­ics Assn.

Mark Lau­rit­sen, di­rec­tor of the food-pro­cess­ing di­vi­sion at the United Food & Com­mer­cial Work­ers In­ter­na­tional Union, es­ti­mates that na­tion­wide tens of thou­sands of refugees are among the roughly 250,000 union­ized meat and poultry plant work­ers.

In Cal­i­for­nia, most of the meat­pack­ing in­dus­try is in the Cen­tral Val­ley. It’s be­come one of the big­gest em­ploy­ers for refugee re­set­tle­ment agen­cies and other non­prof­its aid­ing the pop­u­la­tion in those ar­eas.

Although the in­dus­try in the Golden State is smaller than in other parts of the coun­try —par­tic­u­larly the Mid­west — the for­eign-born pop­u­la­tion has found its way to Foster Farms for decades now. Re­cently, an in­flux of refugees — mostly from the Mid­dle East — started to ar­rive in Fresno and Tur­lock. They too are join­ing the poultry plant’s la­bor force.

In 2010, Foster Farms in Tur­lock be­gan hir­ing refugees placed by the In­ter­na­tional Res­cue Com­mit­tee, a refugee re­set­tle­ment agency, said Chris­tine Le­monda, deputy di­rec­tor of the agency’s North­ern Cal­i­for­nia of­fices. Since then, the agency has placed more than 150 refugees at the poultry plant. In the last six months, 15 have been hired — an uptick — at Foster Farms, Le­monda said.

“It all started out with the very first refugee find­ing a job and open­ing the flood­gate for his or her com­mu­nity,” said Jim Stokes, an In­ter­na­tional Res­cue Com­mit­tee site man­ager in Tur­lock. “They es­tab­lished their own pipe­line and in­roads and started work­ing there.”

Im­mi­grants have long been in­te­gral to the meat­pack­ing in­dus­try, but refugees sur­faced as a key la­bor force start­ing in 2006, ac­cord­ing to ex­perts who study the phe­nom­e­non.

That year the Ge­orge W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion directed im­mi­gra­tion en­force­ment agents to raid meat pro­cess­ing plants in six states. Op­er­a­tion Wagon Train — the largest sin­gle work-en­force­ment ac­tion in U.S. his­tory — led to the ar­rest of an es­ti­mated 1,300 peo­ple work­ing in the coun­try il­le­gally.

Though it did not stop the in­dus­try from com­pletely cut­ting off the hir­ing of unau­tho­rized work­ers, the raids had a chill­ing ef­fect.

The grow­ing un­rest and blood­shed in the Mid­dle East and else­where pro­vided a refugee pop­u­la­tion from which to fill the la­bor vac­uum, said Lavinia Li­mon, pres­i­dent of the U.S. Com­mit­tee for Refugees and Im­mi­grants, a re­set­tle­ment or­ga­ni­za­tion.

“What the meat­pack­ing in­dus­try knows is that th­ese are re­ally good work­ers. They show up on time. They say ‘yes’ when they are told what to do. They do what is nec­es­sary for their sur­vival,” Li­mon said. “It works re­ally well for em­ploy­ers.”

Ni­bonid Balanj, a 32year-old Ira­nian refugee, said he started work­ing at Foster Farms a few months af­ter he ar­rived in Tur­lock in Jan­uary 2013. He worked on the “killing line.” Usu­ally, he’d gut the tur­keys and pre­pare them for pack­ag­ing, he said.

He’d clock in at 1 a.m. and clock out at 9:30 a.m., shower and try to learn English watch­ing cap­tioned movies on Net­flix.

Balanj, who stud­ied to be­come an elec­tri­cian in Iran, didn’t mind the work.

“When I first came I didn’t even know how to say, ‘I’m an elec­tri­cian.’ I didn’t know how to ex­plain my­self, but I had a job. I worked on lan­guage,” he said.

Balanj hus­tled and proved that he could do more, even­tu­ally work­ing his way up to main­te­nance team leader and mak­ing $25 an hour. He saved enough to buy his own home last year. Now, his English is good. In Jan­uary, he left Foster Farms to take what he called a more chal­leng­ing job and to study for an elec­tri­cian’s li­cense.

Dur­ing his time at the poultry plant, Balanj no­ticed that about 90% of the work­ers were for­eign­ers and al­most no­body’s first lan­guage was English, he said.

“It’s the big­gest op­por­tu­nity all the for­eign peo­ple have here,” he said.

The meat­pack­ing in­dus­try has be­come so re­liant on refugees that the North Amer­i­can Meat In­sti­tute, an in­dus­try lobby group, re­leased a state­ment rais­ing its con­cerns af­ter Pres­i­dent Trump is­sued an ex­ec­u­tive ac­tion re­strict­ing cit­i­zens of seven pre­dom­i­nantly Mus­lim coun­tries and all refugees from en­try into the United States.

“His­tor­i­cally, our in­dus­try has be­come an ex­cel­lent start­ing point for new Amer­i­cans. Im­mi­grants and refugees can be an im­por­tant com­po­nent of some com­pa­nies’ la­bor forces, es­pe­cially in ru­ral ar­eas where low un­em­ploy­ment cre­ates a tight la­bor sup­ply,” meat in­sti­tute Pres­i­dent Barry Car­pen­ter said in a state­ment.

There is no for­mal ar­range­ment be­tween the In­ter­na­tional Res­cue Com­mit­tee and Foster Farms, but that may change soon.

The re­set­tle­ment agency and Foster Farms are look­ing at pos­si­bly ex­tend­ing their re­la­tion­ship and for­mal­iz­ing a part­ner­ship in the next few months, Foster Farms spokesman Ira Brill said. He de­clined to dis­cuss the is­sue fur­ther.

Stokes said it’s not un­usual for the In­ter­na­tional Res­cue Com­mit­tee of­fice to re­ceive calls from Foster Farms hu­man re­sources of­fi­cials about job open­ings at the plant and urg­ing the agency to have refugees ap­ply.

Many refugees jump at the chance be­cause a for­mal ed­u­ca­tion and English are not key re­quire­ments for en­try-level jobs where there is a union and good ben­e­fits, said Wasan Abu Baker, a case worker for Fresno In­ter­de­nom­i­na­tional Refugee Min­istries, a non­profit agency in Fresno.

“It’s hard la­bor,” she warns the refugees, so they know what they’re get­ting them­selves into.

Abu Baker said about half of the 27 Syr­ian fam­i­lies the agency serves have a mem­ber work­ing in en­trylevel po­si­tions at Foster Farms. Re­cently, she served as an trans­la­tor dur­ing the ori­en­ta­tion, trans­lat­ing from English to Ara­bic the safety rules and other com­pany poli­cies.

She said Foster Farms ben­e­fits from the Mus­lim refugee pop­u­la­tion be­cause most pass the drug test, Abu Baker said. “Mus­lims don’t do drugs due to re­li­gious rea­sons,” Abu Baker said. “It’s pro­hib­ited.”

On a re­cent week­end, she helped trans­late the Foster Farms ben­e­fits pack­age that Al Souki brought home to his wife, Maisaa Al Ha­mawi. Their 22-month-old daugh­ter, Salwa — the youngest of six chil­dren — tugged at her fa­ther’s shirt as Abu Baker ex­plained to Al Souki that a re­tire­ment plan is in­cluded as part of his ben­e­fits.

He nod­ded in agree­ment and smiled.

When asked whether he’d want his chil­dren to some­day work at the poultry plant, both Al Ha­mawi and Al Souki shook their heads.

Al Ha­mawi quickly re­sponded in Ara­bic: “We want them to study.”

Al Souki scooped up Salwa, put her on his lap and said: “I wish a bet­ter life for my chil­dren.”

Pho­to­graphs by Brian van der Brug Los An­ge­les Times

SYR­IAN REFUGEE Taiseer Al Souki re­laxes at home with his fam­ily in Fresno. He is grate­ful for his ex­haust­ing job at a Foster Farms poultry plant, feed­ing large plas­tic boxes into a ma­chine that cleans them.

“I LIKE WORK. I need work,” says Al Souki, 44. Foster Farms in Tur­lock be­gan hir­ing refugees through the In­ter­na­tional Res­cue Com­mit­tee in 2010.

Brian van der Brug Los An­ge­les Times

WASAN ABU BAKER of Fresno In­ter­de­nom­i­na­tional Refugee Min­istries, cen­ter, helps refugee Taiseer Al Souki and his fam­ily ad­just to life in the U.S. Refugees are in­creas­ingly vi­tal work­ers for meat­pack­ers.

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