The New Factories in the Fields: Georgia Poultry Workers

The New Factories in the Fields: Georgia Poultry Workers

By Greg Guthey

Vol. 19, No. 3-4, 1997 pp. 23-25

Author’s note: While Atlanta promotes itself, somewhat legitimately, as an “international city” due in part to the non-U. S. origins of an increasing number of its population, there are similar changes occurring in more rural sections of the state of Georgia, and the South. These changes are occurring not only in field agriculture, but in rural industry–such as poultry processing. Some Mexican workers, arriving to work in Georgia poultry, have begun to settle in their new-found homes. My interviews, conducted over the past couple of years, with a number of Georgia poultry industry sources and employees point to increasing job tenure among immigrant Latino employees. Due to the sensitivity of immigration issues and the varying legal status of some of the workers, I offered sources anonymity in order to get the interviews upon which the following essay is based.

“I have Hispanic employees who have on average one-and-a-half to two years’ seniority,” explained one personnel manager at a large poultry processing facility near Gainesville. “Two years ago, [Hispanic employee tenure] was less than a year. That deal of going back and forth [to Mexico] is not necessarily true.” He noted that in southern and eastern Hall County, there are increasing numbers of Hispanic people purchasing houses. The reasons for this apparent settlement have more to do with issues related to globalization and Mexican government policy than with individuals’ desires to become Americans. Indeed, many Mexican workers said they would prefer to live and work in Mexico save for the country’s economic dislocations in recent years and the family obligations and network of social contacts they have developed in Georgia.

“I think I am going to save money and go back to Mexico,” explained one poultry worker who has been living in Gainesville and working at a plant for seven years. “[But] my kids are in school now. I think I will go back to Mexico, but you never know.”

Other factors influencing this stablization include changes in some companies’ policies, which discourage rapid turnover and encourage long-term employment with vacation incentives to accommodate immigrant workers’ needs to visit family in Mexico. And some workers attributed their longer stays to a government that does not serve their interests. In response to a question about his intent to go back to Mexico, the industrial engineer said, “Maybe yes, maybe no. Maybe if the government changes. They only do what the biggest, richest Mexicans want.”

Such changes may occur under the direction of a potentially new independent congress in Mexico, which is currently beginning a new term and is ostensibly more concerned with ensuring economic well-being for average Mexican citizens. In the meantime, as Mexican immigrants continue to live and work in Georgia, they are becoming an important portion of the state’s poultry processing workforce. Indeed, they are so important to poultry production that one supervisor quipped during a factory tour, “If there weren’t Hispanic workers, nobody in America would be eating chicken.”

Historically, the migration of workers from Latin America to the poultry processors in Georgia has been in part industry-led. As the industry developed over the past fifty years into a transnational food production system, it needed to find more workers to meet rising demand for poultry products and to replace workers who moved on to better and better paying jobs in Georgia’s growing economy. Poultry processing is hard work. The national injury and illness rate in the industry is 22.7 per 100 workers and the average national poultry production wage has declined about 8.5 percent in real terms between 1972 and 1996, according to statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“At the beginning, we had only white folks, “another manager explained. “Then blacks. Then Vietnamese people. They are [mostly] gone now. They realized they can do something else and now we have Hispanics.”

In the 1980s, some plants recruited employees through immigrant social networks, sometimes offering employees bonuses for bringing in new job applicants. But workers indicated that the industries no longer offer such incentives as they are not necessary. Once immigrant networks are established, they continue to draw more immigrants as stories of the successes of some lead to further attempts by neighbors and relatives. Whether or not the stories are true does not matter. As a result, many new poultry workers are still recruited for work by family members already working in the plants

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without any financial incentives from companies. Among Mexicans, such network recruitment continues due to the serious economic crisis in their home country.

Some of the longer-term immigrant workers whom I interviewed said they arrived in the 1980’s during the economic restructuring stemming from the 1982 debt crisis. Others arrived following the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the devaluation of the peso in 1995. Although some experts debate the connection between NAFTA and the peso crisis, many Mexicans believe that NAFTA is the cause of their economic hardships. Some Mexican congressional leaders, such as Federal Deputy Porfirio Munoz Ledo, feel former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari maintained an overvalued peso during and immediately following the NAFTA debate in order to garner support for the agreement in the U.S. This strategy had high costs for Mexican citizens who had to endure perhaps the worst recession of the century once the currency was devalued. Inflation rates increased rapidly in 1995, while incomes fell. Today Mexican wages continue to have a purchasing power roughly equivalent to that of two decades ago.

The period following the peso devaluation is when a twenty-four-year-old hotel receptionist left Acapulco for Georgia. In her apartment across the street from a Kroger supermarket, which she shares with five cousins, she said, “They tell me the situation is the same as before I left. The salaries are minimal. Things [prices] rise every month.” Rather than stay at her job in Acapulco, she decided to come directly to North Georgia to work in the chicken plants. “I wanted a better life for my brothers and my father.”

Like many immigrant workers, this young woman had the help of a relative in planning her migration. In her case, an uncle, who had also lived in North Georgia for two years, helped her get established. Later, she helped other relatives migrate to North Georgia as well, in a clear example of chain migration. Each of the six people living in her apartment worked at the same plant.

But the more recent migration is not simply related to the fact that people can earn a better wage in the U.S. More importantly, there is a lack of adequately paying employment in Mexico due to the 1990s recession. Many of those interviewed claimed to have had adequate salaries prior to the peso crisis and chose to migrate only after they could no longer find sufficient work in their hometowns. Additionally, government policies in Mexico hold down wages in order to attract foreign investment. A twenty-nine year-old father from Durango explained, “In Mexico, they make like 150 pesos a week. That’s like $20 a week. People that know how to work in construction and that know how to build houses make a little more. They make about 250 pesos a week … But to eat meat in Mexico on Sunday, you have to save money and buy nothing else but beans and soup. It’s expensive. To buy clothes for one person, pants cost 100 pesos. With one person with children and a wife, it’s difficult.”

When asked what the economic crisis means to him, one immigrant worker in Gainesville said, “For me, it means never having everything you want. It means if you have a job, you will never be able to get the things to live comfortably . . . In Mexico, there is no way to have a new house or a new car. There is no way, unless you hit the lottery.” This worker said he had a degree in industrial engineering. His comments reflect those of a person with middle-class aspirations in a country with vastly skewed economic growth.

Migrating to potential jobs in the U. S. is no guarantee of employment. Another worker sitting in a restaurant in Gainesville had not had a job in three months. As to his reasons for coming to the poultry capital of the world, he explained as he showed me a family photograph, “I have six children, OK. I am here because they don’t have anything to eat.”

And for those who do find poultry processing work, the jobs do not appear to offer people much long-term satisfaction. A twenty-five-year-old woman complained that she does not like living in the United States simply because all there is for her is either work, or waiting for work in her sister’s apartment where a satellite dish received Mexican television and provided a constant though inadequate means of distraction. In each place, she explained, she was bored.

“There are a lot of people that go to a chicken plant, but after a while, they get fed up and they look for other work. I really get bored because sometimes I don’t have anything to do,” explained another worker, who is married to a U.S. citizen and is studying for his General Education Diploma so that he can find work outside the plant.

Nevertheless, the southern border has in a sense moved north into Georgia as the ethnic change inside the plants is increasingly mirrored in a larger transition in the service industries, trailer parks, and apartments around them. In places where before there was little evidence of Spanish-speaking residents or businesses, there are now numerous examples. In Athens, there are three grocery stores geared solely towards Spanish-speaking residents. In Gainesville, there are bilingual restaurants, churches, insurance agencies, lawyers, grocery stores, radio stations and music shops. There are Latin American soccer leagues and there is a bus service from Gainesville to the Mexican border with connections to

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Jalisco, Michoacan and other regions in Mexico.

Immigrants started many of these new businesses. “There are a lot of people like me,” commented the restaurant owner who worked in the processing plants for five years before starting his own business. His Mexican restaurant includes a lunch truck that makes rounds to the poultry plants during breaks and lunchtime. “We’re making our lives here.” Their lives are transnational, spanning both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border. On the one hand, they work in the U.S. to provide opportunities for their children, and to support family in Mexico. Financial support in the form of remittances are estimated at between $2.5 and $3.9 billion a year, according to a recent joint U.S.-Mexican government migration study. On the other hand, they would prefer to live in Mexico. “It’s a better life there [in Mexico],” the restaurant owner explained. “Not in an economic way, but the people live more happily there. They live more slowly. You’re not in a rush. People have time to go to the street and talk. Somebody in the U. S., you don’t even have time to know who your neighbor is.”

As a result of these cultural and economic differences, the transnational character of Mexican life in rural Georgia results in a frustration among some. One thirty-two year-old woman with two children explained, “In Mexico, there is nothing. There is nothing to eat. There is nothing to live on … I want to return to Mexico. But we don’t have anything in Mexico. Here at least there is work.” ^

Greg Guthey recently completed his masters degree at the University of Georgia. He is now a graduate student in the Department of Geography at the University of California-Berkeley.