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Chester County Press

Beef Shortage Throws Light on Unsafe Working Conditions for Undocumented Workers

09/09/2020 08:05PM ● By Steven Hoffman

During this pandemic, we have all learned the expression, “essential workers.” That could include doctors, nurses, nurses’ aides, custodians and retail persons to name a few. All of them have put their selves in harm’s way to care or serve the population during this very frightening time. 

But there is another group that has been repeatedly forgotten year after year after year—undocumented people working for low wages in the agricultural industry. 

When customers started to see food shortages during the pandemic, and the rising cost of meats, working conditions for the workers in meat processing plants suddenly took center stage. 

It took the rising costs of steaks to shine a light on the essential worker in meat processing plants. Many are brought here from other countries under an H2A VISA to work temporary, seasonal jobs. They are brought here by a registered broker through a permit program which allows businesses to hire workers on a temporary basis, but it often turns into full-time work. When people wonder why there is such an influx of undocumented people to this country, this scenario may answer that question.

An ag-business owner solicits workers through a broker. We’re not talking mom and pop farms, we are talking big farming industrial complexes, like the huge poultry company owned by Ron Cameron that is located in Sussex County in Delaware. Brokers solicit undocumented immigrants to come here to perform jobs that people in this country don’t want to do.

Sister Jane Houtman, a Catholic nun from the order of the Daughters of the Holy Spirit, and a registered nurse has worked with the undocumented worker for decades and is beyond saddened and outraged to see little has changed for them. A Chester County resident, Houtman has assisted over 3,000 undocumented workers with securing their pathway to citizenship, and she has a long record of helping agricultural workers.

Her path has been fraught with dangers and challenges. She was kidnapped in Chile, labeled an agitator on more than one occasion, and even spoke on behalf of immigrants before Congress, but none of that could prepare her for the heartbreak she would feel watching human beings be treated with less respect than animals and blamed for the unsanitary living conditions they are forced to endure. So, when the current administration’s Health and Human Services Secretary, Alex Azar, told a bipartisan group that he believed infected employees were bringing the virus into meat processing plants where an increase in COVID-19 cases killed at least 20 workers and forced nearly two-dozen plants to close, she knew that he was essentially blaming the victims instead of those individuals responsible for unsafe work and living conditions of their employees.

People watching Azar as he said, ”those infections, were linked more to the "home and social" aspects of workers' lives rather than the conditions inside the facilities” were alarmed, but none so much as Houtman, who knew all about the conditions they lived and worked in. And when President Trump ordered workers back to those plants, placing them in harm’s way, Houtman couldn’t help but remember her own journey.

Houtman was a nurse to migrant workers in the 1980s. One of her most vivid memories was being blocked from entering an Eastern Shore Farm Camp on the Delmarva Peninsula and being labeled an agitator for bringing attention to the unsanitary housing conditions there.

“The camp was certified to hold 450 people but held 1,000. Workers had to do their laundry in the sink and lay them on the ground to dry,” Houtman explained. “These were not nice lawns. There were animals everywhere on those grounds. There were no bathrooms in the house. Workers had to go out of their building to a bathroom. Neither toilets nor showers were sanitary or private. Women would take turns watching for other women taking showers. It was never safe.”

She added, “Wages were poor and stores (owned by crew leaders) would overcharge workers for food and other necessities. Workers were “encouraged” to shop at those stores.”

Few farmworkers had transportation so they had to pay the crew leader for transportation to and from the camp and to any other places they had to travel. The owner of the camp provided housing, which was inadequate and in many instances workers were overcharged for that as well. When they received their wages, there was little left after everyone else took their cut.

Houtman recalled one of the workers telling her, “Before I came here, I was told we had air conditioning. We did. I had a huge hole in the wall of my building.”

Crew leaders brought people in from their own communities, promising more than they delivered. Groups were divided according to ethnicity—Mexican, Jamaican, Haitian, and African.  The crew leader had a contract for a determined amount of money. He would pay workers and take out taxes, but those taxes were never sent to the government, according to Houtman. He would also take a cut of what each worker was paid. If workers became sick they worked. And, Houtman added, “workers did get free medical care, but doctors treated them with much less dignity than they treated paying patients.”

Houtman worked there for 10 years, 38 years ago and said, “sadly, it hasn’t changed that much. Undocumented workers are still being brought in from other countries through government programs. They are not protecting the workers. That is obvious when you see the conditions where they are working. The workers are being treated as less than human. They have the same right as any worker to be protected in the workplace. Whether it’s from the virus or any other unsafe conditions. It places them in a vulnerable situation. They accepted conditions that were oppressive because it is the only way they can make a living. And they are living in crowded conditions in housing that is owned by same people that hire them. I really didn’t think that treatment was possible in this country today.”

Houtman is keenly aware of the ongoing treatment of the undocumented immigrants who she feels have been encouraged to come here for years to work for low wages, then are berated for coming here. 

“No one wants to leave their home, family or country to move to a strange place,” she said. “Those that do, do so to find a better life for their family. And their definition of a better life does not mean a life of wealth. It means a safe life, where children can receive a good education. They are coming from countries where there is no law and order.  Places where going to school means first finding a school, and then finding a safe way to get there every day.”

Houtman said, “It is unbelievable that babies and children are being taken from their parents’ arms and being caged like animals. Those children aren’t treated as well as most peoples’ pets. Undocumented immigrants, were and are still being brought here to work as agricultural laborers.”

And that agricultural designation includes working on golf courses, landscaping, and working in meat- and food-processing plants. Houtman also expressed concern for the safety of workers in the meat processing industry.

Houtman also expressed concern for the safety of workers citing the language barrier. “Not all employers post safety signs in the language of their employees. When workers are brought in from a variety of countries, they can’t even talk to each other. And they certainly aren’t able to read signs telling workers about how to safely use equipment, or to practice safe distancing. It is appalling to see how this current administration is actually forcing workers to work in these meat processing plants, just so people don’t run out of meat, meat that most of those very workers can’t even afford to buy.”