Meat processing: an industry engineered to hire immigrants

In the past twenty years the meat processing industry has evolved into a more rural, immigrant-staffed and corporately organized industry. To get to full picture you need to appreciate the interweaving of a number of apparently disparate trends which, together, evolved into a huge immigrant hiring and employment machine: in a way, a completely privatized, but hardly improvised, guest worker program. The industry model was: larger, more efficient and non-union plants; recruitment of immigrant labor to rural sites; and deskilling of jobs in part to facilitate immigrant hiring.
As of 2003, about 43% of meat processing labor was Hispanic, up from 33% in 1998 and 15% in 1990. The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that 27% of this meat processing workforce is undocumented workers. This trend line suggests that half of the workforce today is Hispanic. Below we describe industry growth and ruralization; concentration, deskilling, and planning for immigrants.

Most of the following is taken from Migration News editions archived on the site of the Migration Information Service.
The key industry is Animal Slaughtering & Processing (NAICS 3116). According to the Monthly Labor Review, this industry sector had in 456,000 workers in 1994, 505,000 workers in 2004, and prospectively 570,000 workers in 2014. Starting in the 1980s, this labor began to concentrate more in rural areas, and to focus less on beef and more on pork and chicken, which doubled in consumption per capita. (Poultry processing has traditionally been in the rural south.)
The rural shift also included moving beef processing from metropolitan area plants in the 1980s. As of 2005, there is one small slaughterhouse left in Chicago in 2005, Chiappetti Lamb and Veal – staffed mainly by Hispanic workers. Closing and relocating jobs sparked many labor-management struggles; in the end union representation of the industry’s workforce declined from half to 20%. Real wages fell. And – noted below – skill requirements fell.
Evidence of concentration
Concentration. The US food processing and retailing sector is consolidating rapidly. Food processing was relatively unconcentrated until the 1980s, when fewer and larger firms became dominant in meat processing, often re-opening closed plants with subsidies from state and local governments and hiring non-union immigrant workers. Today 90% of meat and poultry is from plants that have 400 or more employees. Cattle slaughtering plants fell from 600 in 1980 to 170 in 2000, and for plants for hogs from 500 to 180 during the same period.
Consolidation in meat processing, the largest manufacturing sector in rural America, is extending to farmers. The first industry in which processors relied on “contract farmers” was broilers and, since the 1970s, almost 100 percent of chickens have been grown in a vertical integration process in which processors supply feed and chicks, while farmers own the buildings and supply labor to raise the chickens. Less than five percent of hogs were raised under contract in 1980, but over 80 percent were in 2000, which helped to reduce the number of US hog farms from over 500,000 to 85,000 in 20 years.
The following paragraph is excerpted from “Restructuring of the US meat processing industry and new Hispanic migrant destinations.”, Population and Development Review; 9/1/2005; Parrado, Emilio A. and Kandel, William.
At the same time, meat processing as an occupation has become almost entirely de-skilled. Conventional labor economics theory posits that greater technological innovation by firms would lead to increased skill requirements for their workers, but this has not been the case for the meat processing industry. A formerly urban, unionized, and semiskilled workforce employed in production plants, supermarkets, and butcher shops in the 1950s was transformed into one with rural, mostly nonunion, and unskilled workers concentrated at the industrial processing end of the meat production chain by the end of the 1980s Employment that previously required butchering skills and some degree of craftsmanship became routinized and repetitive, as once relatively small plants processing many types of livestock were replaced by much larger plants often specializing in specific livestock breeds.
A recent analysis of nine broad industrial sectors (e.g., other agricultural processing, nondurable manufacturing, mining) between 1972 and 1992 found that meat processing was the only industry that experienced a decline in its ratio of skilled to unskilled workers (Lee and Schluter 1999; Schluter and Lee 2002).
Planning for large immigrant workforces
Meat-packing has long attracted workers with relatively little education and sometimes little English, but wages had to be comparable to those in durables manufacturing when processors were in urban areas. Meat processing facilities in rural areas do not have to compete with other factories for workers. But they often have to recruit workers from out of the area. Many Midwestern meat processors offered cash bonuses to current workers and others who recruited workers who were hired and stayed on the job 60 or 90 days, setting in motion networks that brought US-born as well as Mexican-born Hispanic workers from south Texas and other areas with few high unemployment rates.