A Somali refugee’s encounter with meatpacking work

Meat processing plants went rural in the last decades of the 20th Century, luring immigrant workers to places like Liberal, Kansas. Chico Harlan of the Washington Post narrates the struggle of a Somali refugee, 23 year-old Mohamed Ahmed, to make a living in this very tough work. Ahmed drives hundreds of miles through the Midwest and mountain states in search of an extra couple of bucks and hour pay and a job that doesn’t wear him down.

Harlan traces Ahmed’s story in the context of Somali refugees and in the context of meat packing. The Migration Policy Institute reports that of the 70,000 refugees admitted annually, about 8,000 of them have recently been from Somali. Most apply for refugee status from the massive Dabaab network of camps in Kenya, which Kenya is trying to close down.

Meatpacking (or meat processing) evolved to become a major hirer of immigrants with little formal education. I’ve described this evolution here:

Consolation of the meat packing business into large processing plants, causing family and small employer operations to sharply decline.

Placement of the plants in rural areas. As of 2005, only one small meatpacking plant in Chicago was left.

Deskilling: “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.” Workers with limited English proficiency can find jobs.


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