The Immigrants Packing Your Butterball Turkey Are under Threat | Food Feature | Indy Week
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The Immigrants Packing Your Butterball Turkey Are under Threat 

Op-ed by Laura Wagner and Vincent Joos, labor researchers in eastern North Carolina

click to enlarge A Butterball factory in Duplin County, North Carolina, where some Haitian immigrants have worked for a decade. Many have just lost their Temporary Protection Status and could be deported.

Photo by Vincent Joos

A Butterball factory in Duplin County, North Carolina, where some Haitian immigrants have worked for a decade. Many have just lost their Temporary Protection Status and could be deported.

Tomorrow, people throughout the United States will sit down at bountiful Thanksgiving tables to carve turkeys. Many of these turkeys were processed by Haitian laborers in Butterball factories in North Carolina. They are paid low wages for hard work so that American consumers can buy turkeys at ninety-nine cents a pound.

On Tuesday afternoon, one day before President Trump pardoned a turkey named Drumstick, his administration ended Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for nearly 60,000 Haitian people living in the United States, including many of the hardworking immigrants who live in Mount Olive, North Carolina.

Mount Olive is home to enormous poultry processing plants, as well as the Mt. Olive Pickle Company. It has long filled its labor pools with migrant workers willing to do the dirty, dangerous, and demeaning jobs that Americans refuse to perform. After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the Department of Homeland Security granted TPS to nearly 60,000 Haitians who were already living in the United States. Between 2010 and 2011, more than 3,000 Haitian people settled in and around Mount Olive to work in the meat industry, increasing the town’s population by a third. The Mount Olive Butterball plant hired Haitians in droves.

Working conditions in the poultry industry are notoriously inhumane. Marjorie Jean-Baptiste (a pseudonym), a woman in her sixties who works at the Butterball plant in Duplin County, explains that “the factory is like a giant fridge, and you handle frozen turkey all day long. The hard part for me is the cold. Even at home, I cannot manage to get the cold off my body after work. I have developed arthritis since working for Butterball. My feet are swollen, my legs hurt all the time.” Jean-Baptiste, like many Haitians in Mount Olive, endures injury, few rights or protections, and low wages. She earns $10.85 per hour as a line worker.

In the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, workers at Butterball plants face intense managerial pressure and line speed increases, deboning more than fifty turkeys a minute. As you read this, Jean-Baptiste is likely working to fill the remaining orders of fresh, unfrozen turkeys. Like most Haitians in Mount Olive, she works long hours in harsh conditions in order to send weekly remittances to family in Haiti.

Most workers at the Butterball plant are there because of work permits obtained through their TPS visas. They are also vital members of the community and the economy. They pay taxes. Many have been living in the United States for years, even decades.They have children and other relatives who are U.S. citizens. In Mount Olive particularly, they have transformed an abandoned, economically depressed neighborhood into a vibrant community filled with Haitian boutiques, mini-markets, and churches.

TPS was granted to Haitians after the 2010 earthquake that killed around 230,000 people, flattened much of the capital city of Port-au-Prince and the surrounding areas, and displaced 1.5 million people for years to come. In October of that same year, UN peacekeepers introduced cholera, which has since killed at least 10,000 people to date (though that number may be significantly underreported) and sickened more than 800,000. In October of last year, Hurricane Matthew tore through Haiti’s southern peninsula—one of the most fertile areas of the country that produces food for other regions—killing at least a thousand people and destroying 100 percent of crops in some areas.

Disasters are never “natural.” They are political, as political as immigration policy that governs who stays and who goes, which in some cases means who lives and who dies. The 2010 earthquake was a disaster largely because of urban overcrowding. Port-au-Prince was never meant to hold three million people, but because economic and educational opportunities are so concentrated in the capital,the only way for many rural Haitians to chèche lavi (make a living) is to move to the “Republic of Port-au-Prince.” The cholera epidemic was likewise exacerbated by urban overcrowding; Port-au-Prince is the largest city in the world without a sewage system.

In March of this year, the Department of Homeland Security extended TPS for Haitians for six months, citing “lingering effects” of the earthquake, “significant losses of crops and livestock in the regions damaged by Hurricane Matthew [that] impacted the entire country,” heavy rains this spring, and the ongoing cholera epidemic, as well as general poverty and lack of infrastructure.

Six months later, the Trump administration has decided that Haiti is now miraculously able to absorb another 60,000 people—approximately the population of Kissimmee, Florida or Santa Cruz, California.

Haiti has not recovered. It is not ready.

During a campaign stop in Miami last year, Trump stood before members of the Haitian community and declared, “I want to be your greatest champion.” It is no great surprise that a president who is openly antagonistic toward immigrants, black people, and the working poor would reveal himself not to have the interests of Haitian people at heart.

The end of TPS for Haitians means that in eighteen months, the slow, remittance-fueled reconstruction of Haiti will come to a halt. It also means that the lives and families of the people who settled in Mount Olive and revived its economy, the people who contribute far more to this country than they take, the people who brought you your Thanksgiving turkey, will be devastated.

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