this worker shortage will not be televised

"Tyson says that workers will not be able to travel to Mexico or their home countries in December and nobody will get a vacation" - an Arkansas poultry processing worker

There is a worker shortage in the meat and poultry processing industry. In Arkansas, the public relations arms of the poultry industry have made a concerted effort to portray the labor shortage as:

  • workers taking government COVID-19 stimulus money and using it to return to their home countries

  • workers preferring unemployment to work and either lounging around at home or using that money to return to their home countries

  • workers having “saved enough money” to repatriate back to their home countries *workers I’ve interviewed who have been at Tyson for 20 years make roughly $13/hour

Poultry processing companies rarely acknowledge that their workforce is almost entirely made up of immigrant labor. And they definitely don’t want to discuss how many workers were hospitalized for COVID-19 and continue to suffer debilitating long-haul symptoms or those who died of COVID-19. In Arkansas, significant numbers of workers are from Myanmar, Vietnam, Puerto Rico, El Salvador, and Mexico. Many of the workers only speak their native language, which means they have a hard time coordinating to demand rights. Unfortunately, in Arkansas, as in many other southern states, local media outlets make little effort to hire multilingual reporters or report in other languages.

According to workers I’ve spoken to, maybe half of the workforce at Tyson plants in Arkansas have consented to get vaccinated. There is a significant amount of misinformation in Arkansas surrounding vaccination, and some evangelical churches have told workers that if they believe in God, they should not get vaccinated because God will protect them. Only 33% of Arkansas citizens are fully vaccinated and the state is ranked 48th due to this low vaccination rate.

And so rather than acknowledge how terrifying it has been for poultry processing workers to witness their friends and family die of COVID-19 (and to admit that the labor shortage might be related), companies like Tyson are making workers pay for the labor shortage. In Arkansas, Tyson has asked workers to work Sundays and recently posted in plants the following notice: “Any Team Member who has taken a December vacation in the past 3 years will not be eligible for a vacation in December unless there is room available.” Once again, immigrant workers are being asked, after the horror that they have witnessed during the pandemic, to keep up production line speeds at plants. And keeping line speeds up with fewer workers produces more accidents.

To maintain cheap meat and high profits, immigrant workers will continue to be asked to put their lives on the line. There is no labor shortage - companies could attract workers by paying them a living wage and improving safety conditions.

“Unless I go blind, I’ll continue working because I need the work” - an immigrant poultry processing worker