Reality Check: Who’s really applying for all of those newly-available jobs at the poultry plants?


When I was a kid, there were very few residents of Hispanic origin here in Hattiesburg. We were a city of, basically, blacks and whites. I had a couple of Asian-American classmates at Hattiesburg's Blair High School, but all in all, ours was not much of an international city. Boy, has that ever changed. 

In those days, there was the Marshall Durbin chicken processing plant, still located on James Street in southeast Hattiesburg. 

In the 1960s, working at Marshall Durbin was often viewed as a job of last resort. 

Wages were low, but hey, it was an honest living. In those days, I'm willing to bet, the majority of employees, those working in the most menial positions at the plant, were African-Americans. 

That's probably not so much the case today. 

Workers from countries south of the U.S. border are often singled out and accused of "taking jobs away from Americans." 

Oh, really? 

I'd be interested to know who is applying for most of the jobs at Mississippi's numerous poultry processing plants. 

More than likely, the majority are immigrants, and yes, many of them are undocumented. Or, as they're more popularly called these days, "illegal immigrants." 

But you know what? You can thank those "illegals" for the hard work they do, getting those fryers to your dinner plates. 

These workers have a thankless and tough job. 

Ever wonder how tough? Probably not. Most of us take for granted how those chickens get from the poultry farms to the processing plant to our supper tables. 

A typical poultry plant's assembly line is kept at 40 degrees, as cold as the inside of your refrigerator.  Workers are given one specific task and must perform it, all day long. To process chickens, poultry plant workers have to use the same parts of their bodies, over and over again, for hours on end. 

In a typical day, each worker is doing the same body movements, repeatedly, on a countless number of chickens.

Of course, all the waste that follows as a result of cutting and processing thousands of chickens a day makes for an unpleasant, even dangerous working environment. 

Employees stand arm-to-arm next to each other all day, using sharp tools, knives and hooks. 

The concrete floors beneath them are damp and slimy, as a result of processing, on average, a chicken per second. To keep their jobs, the employees must work like machines. 

In those conditions, with the repetitive body movements, plant workers are, over time, surely causing harm to their bodies. 

Not counting the injuries that may occur from performing their jobs.  There are high rates of cuts, lacerations and sometimes even amputations as a result of working in poultry plants. 

What about sanitation?

Chemicals are in heavy use at these plants, sprayed to reduce the number of pathogens that unavoidably float along the assembly lines. 

Keep in mind, we're talking about raw chicken here. Salmonella occurs naturally in the stomach of chickens and is a major concern. 

Even at home, in our own kitchens, we're instructed to take safety precautions when cutting up raw poultry. 

Imagine what a chicken plant worker is breathing during a typical 8-hour shift, processing an entire bird, every second.

Poultry plants also make use of sprayers over the conveyor belts, continuously spraying anti-bacterial agents to keep down the level of pathogens.

Of course, employees are breathing these agents all day during a long shift. Breathing anti-bacterial spray for eight hours surely, over time, has a detrimental affect on their lungs.

Gotta take a bathroom break while working? You might do best to hold it. In fact, sometimes poultry plant workers have no choice but to hold it.

Employees are given few restroom breaks. 

For that reason, many of them limit their intake of liquids, like water, to keep restroom visits to a minimum.

Some of the workers resort to wearing adult diapers, eliminating the "need" for going to the restroom. 

There are worse stories about relieving themselves, but I'll not share them here.

"Freeloading illegals." That's how undocumented workers are often referred to. But besides making sure there're always plenty of affordable chickens for us in the meats section at Walmart, what good are they? 

Send them back to where they came from, right? 

Mississippi made unfavorable national headlines as a result of the recent Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids on our state.

Some 680 immigrant workers were taken from seven of Mississippi's poultry processing plants. 

Many of these workers were parents of school-age children. The raids, carried out on the first day of school in Mississippi, left many of those children with no one to meet them after class. The kids had no idea where their parents were. 

While immigrant workers were being detained by ICE, management of the poultry plants were surely comfortable, working in their air-conditioned and, I'd imagine, carpeted offices. 

None of them were arrested. 

The big poultry companies are collecting monies from employee paychecks for the U.S. Social Security Administration. 

An immigrant's Social Security number may be fake, but poultry plant payroll departments still withhold taxes from each of their paychecks. 

Many immigrants, illegally working in the United States, use fake Social Security cards and present them to their employers in an effort to be hired. 

Do keep in mind, management often pays very little attention to the authenticity of those cards.  (Insert a wink here.)

The federal government holds onto the payroll taxes paid by undocumented workers, even if the phony Social Security number is not linked to a real-life, legal American worker. 

And what happens to all that cash turned over to the feds?

For starters, a large sum of the money lands in the Social Security trust fund, and guess where it goes from there? (Here's where it gets interesting.) 

The Social Security Administration is growing increasingly reliant on monies paid in by undocumented workers. 

One Social Security administrator estimates nearly two million immigrants were working with fake or stolen Social Security cards in 2010. 

That number is most likely even higher now. 

In 2010, these workers, many of them working at poultry processing plants, paid $13 billion into the Social Security retirement trust fund. 

As Baby Boomers have aged and begun retiring, we can thank undocumented workers for keeping the Social Security trust fund solvent, and those monthly Social Security checks coming in. 

As our country's population gets older, it means fewer people are paying IN to Social Security, while more people are taking money OUT. 

You may have heard the Social Security trust fund is in danger of becoming insolvent in a number of decades. 

Let's be honest.

Poultry plant companies are well aware that many of the employees hired to work in their facilities are undocumented. They want the cheap labor to maximize their profits.

The recent round-up of immigrants in Mississippi punished the workers, while leaving company management unscathed. 

At the same time, a newly xenophobic percentage of the American population directs its rage at the immigrants. 

But little attention is paid by us or, for that matter, by federal authorities, to those companies who share an equal role in undocumented workers being hired to work in the United States.

Oh, yeah. 

Round those workers up and send them back home. 

But when you do, just don't raise the price of our chickens at Walmart.  Or worse, don't dare mess with our Social Security checks. 

A reality check here: immigrant workers play a very important role in the American economy. 

I guess they're not quite the "freeloaders" we thought they were after all.

Elijah Jones is a writer and a proud graduate of the Hattiesburg Public School System and the University of Southern Mississippi. Drop him an email: