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Thursday, June 29, 2006 07:55 pm

Welcome to America

African immigrants at Cargill are the latest to see the underside of the American dream

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Beardstown and surrounding communities in west-central Illinois have taken on a surreal international air of late. A community of African immigrants has quietly been building in the area for the past few years, on the heels of a Hispanic migration that began in the 1990s. The immigrants are drawn by jobs at the local Cargill Meat Solutions pork-processing plant, where, at the change of shift, workers may be heard chatting in English, Spanish, French, and various African languages.

On a recent Saturday, the local Catholic church held a special Mass in celebration of the quinceañera, a coming-out ceremony for 15-year-old Hispanic girls. Arriving at the church perched on the back of convertibles, the girls wore bright white gowns accented with Valentine red. Young Hispanic men in starched white suits escorted them into the church, where an elderly American priest said the Mass in Spanish.

Immediately afterward, the church held a baptism ceremony attended by about 100 Africans, with Hispanics and Americans sprinkled among them. In their colorful cotton-print suits and dresses, exuding exotic perfumes, the Africans brought some verve to the graying river town. At the end of the service, African men strode down the aisle shaking hands with everyone they met, friends and strangers alike. Smiling families with young children gathered for pictures outside the church, arms flung around one another and anyone who happened to be standing nearby.

The Africans come primarily from countries in West Africa such as Senegal, Togo, Burkina Faso, Ghana, and Mali. Most speak French in addition to African languages. The Cargill plant employs 176 Africans now, and estimates put the total African population in the area at anywhere from 300 to 500. Hispanics, by comparison, number in the range of a couple thousand and account for more than a third of the plant’s workforce of 2,240. Including a dozen or so Asians, mostly Vietnamese and Filipino, immigrants make up 43 percent of employees in Beardstown.

Because of the limited housing in Beardstown, most of the Africans live 13 miles to the northwest, in Rushville, across the Illinois River. Rushville Ald. Scott Thompson says he began noticing new faces around town about three years ago.

“At first I was concerned because the typical reaction of a rural community with people of color moving into it — you don’t know what the reaction is going to be,” he says, “but Rushville folks really stepped up and, for the most part, have taken them in and have made all these folks welcome. I think we’ve done really well in helping them feel at home.”

State Sen. John Sullivan of Rushville concurs, noting that Africans attend his church and his children’s schools. “The integration into our community, I’d say, has gone very smoothly.”

Thompson acknowledges that a few minor incidents occurred in the beginning between residents and Africans but declines to give details. “The problems that did exist were actually cultural,” he says. “It wasn’t based in racism.” The most frequent comment he’s heard from longtime residents is how impressed they are with the Africans’ dress. “It’s great, when you think about it,” he adds. “We actually have something other than blue jeans and camouflage going through the neighborhood.”

The immigrants have also brought soccer to the town on the weekends. Most are educated, with some schooling in British English, but their unfamiliar accents may be more difficult for Midwesterners to understand than Spanish accents. Anyone who makes the effort to break the communication barrier, however, is likely to encounter a refreshing sweetness.

Vicky Crye, who worked with the Hispanic ministry for the Diocese of Springfield in Beardstown in 2004 and 2005, has helped many Africans get settled in the area. “I have really gotten to know them,” she says. “They open their heart to you. They’re very loving people, very caring.

“They come here with nothing, and they get themselves up and going very quickly,” she adds, “not only the Africans but the Hispanics, too — and it’s not that easy, because working in meatpacking is a very, very hard job, a very physical job. They always have some health problems, like carpal tunnel, because of the repetition of what they do.”

They have come from poor, often violence-torn countries to pursue the dream of American prosperity and freedom they’ve seen in television images. One man from Togo says he imagined that life here would be problem-free, but he has been sorely disillusioned in just a few years. “Life is very, very hard,” he says. “The rent costs too much.”

He started out on the East Coast, where the only job he could find paid $8.50 an hour, not enough to support his family of three. He came to Illinois when he heard from a friend that Cargill paid $11.35 an hour. After working less than two years, he now has many of the trappings of American success — flat-screen television, nice furniture, cell phone. His paycheck is huge by Togo standards, but after the bills are paid he has little left to send to his sick mother overseas.

His biggest disenchantment, however, is with his job. He cuts pork on a fast-moving conveyor from afternoon to nearly midnight, making the same motions over and over again. During an eight-hour shift, he gets a 15-minute break after two hours and a 30-minute lunch period after another three hours. The pace leaves him and his fellow workers dazed and constantly exhausted, he says: “Everybody has aches and pain in their back — everybody, everybody, everybody.”

Though some Africans were reluctant to talk about their jobs for this story, a few confided in me after several months’ acquaintance. They explained that other Africans would not talk for fear of jeopardizing their jobs, and that many are pleased with their jobs despite the hardships because the pay is good. But the man from Togo, whom I’ll call Thomas, says that Africans talk among themselves about the absurd speed of the pork-processing line.

When I ask another Togolese how he likes his job, he answers simply, “It’s too fast! It’s too fast!”

The Cargill plant, along with several others in the top tier of pork processors, operates at the highest line speeds in the country. Every day over two shifts, about 18,000 hogs are slaughtered and butchered. That works out to 1,200 hogs per hour, or 20 hogs a minute. It means a hog is hoisted onto the line every 3 seconds. Cargill’s only other U.S. pork plant, in Ottumwa, Iowa, also processes 18,000 hogs a day. Cargill is the nation’s No. 4 pork processor.

For most people, meatpacking plants are best kept out of sight, out of mind. Beginning in the 1980s, these hidden worlds were transformed into massive engines of mechanistic efficiency. Tasks have been broken down into smaller and smaller pieces so that each worker makes as few motions as possible — ideally only a single cut — throughout his or her shift. This, in combination with automation, has brought about ever-increasing line speeds, which translate to higher profits and lower pork prices.

Although Cargill denied a request for a tour of the plant, formerly known as Excel Corp., a variety of sources, including plant workers, described what goes on inside. Hogs are guided into a pen, which descends into a pit of carbon dioxide gas, rendering them unconscious. After the pen rises from the pit, workers shackle each hog by a hind leg to a moving overhead rail —no easy task, with hogs averaging 265 pounds. Now hanging upside down, the hogs pass a worker who makes a cut to a jugular vein every three seconds.

Once the blood has drained, the hog is rinsed and dehaired in several operations — a scald tub, singeing machine, and paddle tub. The carcass is then decapitated, the chest sawed open, the hip bones broken, and the organs removed. In this first half of the process on what is known as the kill floor, workers are required to do a lot of heavy lifting, pulling, gripping, and ripping with knives, blood and fat flying. Hogs sometimes fall from the line and must be reattached. The work is particularly arduous in the summer heat, which also intensifies the foul smells. The noise from machinery and squealing pigs is constant.

At the end of the kill floor, the carcasses go into a chamber to chill overnight. The next day, they are processed into various pork cuts in 35- to 45-degree temperatures in a section of the plant known as the cut floor. Some immigrant workers, used to much warmer climates, wear three or four sweaters under their white butcher coats to keep warm. Most stand at a moving conveyor, cutting quickly into meat and placing a piece on a different conveyor. Working in the refrigerated air and touching cold surfaces aggravates the repetitive stress on their joints.

With all the sharp knives and saws moving rapidly, the potential for injury is great. A January 2005 report by Human Rights Watch called meatpacking the most dangerous factory job in America. Early this year the Occupational Safety and Health Administration began an inspection of the plant as part of its Site-Specific Targeting program, which pinpoints companies with high injury rates for investigation. Cargill spokesman Mark Klein declines to provide the Beardstown plant’s injury rate.

Company-wide, Cargill has had at least two fatal accidents in recent years. A Hispanic worker at a beef-processing plant in Nebraska died in 2000 after accidentally stabbing himself just below the neck. At the time, he was cutting beef rounds from hindquarters passing every six seconds. OSHA did not fine the company because it did not find any violations. Cargill’s response was not to slow the line but, rather, to extend the workers’ heavy chain-mail tunics to protect the upper chest.

Another fatality occurred in November at the Cargill pork plant in Ottumwa. An overhead rail carrying hogs to be inserted into empty slots on the main processing line fell on a 41-year-old American worker and pinned him for 40 minutes. Iowa’s Occupational Safety and Health Bureau fined Cargill $75,000 for the accident, including $25,000 to be paid to a trust fund for the victim’s child. In the citation, the agency stipulated that the company should take precautions against overloading the hog rail and institute preventive maintenance and frequent inspections to pinpoint corrosion, wear, and cracks. According to the Ottumwa Courier, the victim had repeatedly complained to his brother of the hazard before the accident. But Klein says, “It’s something that we could never have foreseen happening” Aside from replacing the rail, the Cargill spokesman says, the company has taken no corrective action.

For meatpacking companies, injuries ranging from amputations, cuts, and bruises to repetitive-stress injuries, are part of the cost of doing business. Since 2000, according to the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission, more than 600 cases have been filed against Cargill for injuries at the Beardstown plant, and the company has paid out about $6 million. More than half of the cases were for “repetitive-stress trauma.”

William Lamarca, a Springfield attorney who’s been handling worker-compensation cases for employees of the Beardstown plant since 1980, when it was owned by Oscar Mayer, says that repetitive-stress injuries are inevitable if an employee continues working on a meatpacking line. “From what I’ve been told by doctors, the body is just not designed to perform that type of activity for any duration,” he says. “It just wears out.”

Most of the 50 to 100 cases against the Beardstown plant that Lamarca’s firm has handled were settled on the basis of loss of use of a hand or an arm as a result of carpal-tunnel syndrome or other repetitive-stress injury. It starts with inflammation and swelling in joints, which compresses nerves and causes pain or numbness. Cargill has an on-site nurse’s station for employees, but several immigrants say that the nurse typically gives them ibuprofen for pain and tells them to go back to work. More serious ailments might receive an ointment such as Bengay or hot and cold packs. That’s all one African woman has been dispensed for a thumb joint so overworked from cutting with a knife, she says, that it is “practically broken.” She wobbles her thumb back and forth to show me how loose the joint has become after just seven months at Cargill. Another woman who has been there two years shows me her thumb, which is abnormally bowed between the knuckles.

At other large meatpacking companies investigated by Human Rights Watch, employees reported that ibuprofen and prodding back to work was the standard treatment from company medical clinics. They said the clinics seemed to operate as an arm of management. Workers “claim the clinics fail to take injuries seriously and seem to be more interested in ensuring that workers do not have ‘an excuse’ to stop working,” according to the report.

One of Lamarca’s clients, Enriqueta Bocanegra, repeatedly visited the nurse in Beardstown for help after experiencing pain in her back, shoulders, and hands, as well as numbness in her hands at night while sleeping. In her four years at the plant, Bocanegra cut pork loins with an electric saw and cut tenderloin strips with ring knives, which fit over a finger on each hand.

“Company doctors are just peddling pain relievers,” Lamarca says. “ ‘Just take two ibuprofen and you’ll be OK,’ and that’ll go on for months. A person’s complaining about increasing symptoms, but, because of the job-security issue, they try to work through it, do home remedies, soak their hands at night.”

In 2004, when her father fell ill, Bocanegra took time off work to go to Mexico. On her return, the company told her she’d been fired for not calling in every day. Her condition, subsequently diagnosed as carpal-tunnel syndrome, has required two surgeries. It has also prevented her from getting another job. Cargill is disputing her worker-compensation claim, saying that the diagnosis wasn’t made until after she left the company.

In the mid-1990s, the Beardstown plant was dealing with a yearly turnover of 100 percent, according to a November 2003 series in the State Journal-Register. That was before Hispanic immigrants were employed in large numbers and higher wages were negotiated by the United Food and Commercial Workers union. Although Cargill’s Klein declines to divulge past turnover rates, he says that the current rate is 40 percent, including 14 percent who were fired by the company.

The importance of immigrants to Cargill’s operations has led the company to “mobile recruiting,” traveling to areas with large immigrant populations to find workers. On May 1, when Hispanic rallies were held around the country in support of amnesty for illegal immigrants, the company gave all employees in Beardstown and Ottumwa, as well as at five beef-processing plants, the day off without pay to allow them to participate. Klein says, “We do think that some kind of amnesty or earned legalization is the way to go.” African employees, whose legal status, for the most part, is not an issue, felt disengaged from the May 1 events. Some say they were annoyed, as were many American employees, at having to work long hours later in the week to make up for the day’s lost production.

Given businesses’ reliance on immigrants, it’s no mystery why the Bush administration is advocating a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. People who’ve suffered poverty and violence in their native lands have a high tolerance for harsh working conditions.

But even immigrants have a limit to what they’ll endure. Many Africans have quit the Beardstown plant in recent months, Thomas says, after the speed of the lines was bumped up significantly last fall in the lead-up to the holiday season. At the time, some employees were required to work 10 hours every Friday for four or five months. He recalls Cargill officials’ telling new hires that the welfare of the workers was more important to the company than productivity. Since then, though, he has come to the conclusion that supervisors for each line on the cut floor set the conveyor speed not with consideration for the workers but according to the number of orders the company must fill for hams, loins, shanks, ribs, and other cuts. “They use people,” he says. “It’s no good. You have to work fast like a machine.”

OSHA does not regulate line speeds, though it recommends reducing production rates in an ergonomics “guideline” that is entirely voluntary for meatpacking companies. Ergonomics involves designing jobs to minimize stress on the body, and the guideline includes measures such as reducing overtime and adding rest pauses and job rotation. An enforceable ergonomics standard went into effect in January 2001 after 10 years of development, only to be repealed two months later by the newly installed Bush administration. The reason? It would impose too much paperwork on the industry and be impossible to enforce.

Bill Hancock, a senior inspector in OSHA’s Peoria office who is conducting the current inspection of the Beardstown plant, says line speed is “just not that relevant to what we’re doing.” Without an ergonomics standard, he’s focusing on safety hazards. He adds, “Sometimes, with facilities like this, we know there are going to be ergonomics issues and that’s why they’re on the list, but they may be doing about everything they can already.”

In Hancock’s view, ergonomics changes such as shortening the reach a worker must make would justify an increase in line speed. “If they make improvements in the lines, make them more ergonomically compatible with the employees, then they may have the ability to increase line speeds without any additional risk to the employees.” But wouldn’t that increase the repetition the worker is subjected to? “Unless they introduce something else like rotation [of jobs],” he says.

Apparently there is very little job rotation at the Beardstown plant. Asked whether Cargill rotates workers to prevent repetitive stress, Klein says, “Actually, we deal pretty well with repetitive-stress injuries by encouraging employees to report minor aches and pains to the nurse’s office so they can be dealt with before they become major aches and pains.” Job rotation and the extra training involved are no doubt seen as a drag on productivity.

Cargill has adopted some aspects of the ergonomics guideline, at least on the surface. For instance, managers encourage employees to tell their supervisors of ways to make their jobs easier — but Thomas says that whenever he and his friends have made a suggestion, the supervisors say they can’t do it; end of discussion.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture regulates line speed to ensure that inspectors have time to determine whether meat is contaminated. The USDA’s maximum is 1,106 hogs per hour, but the Beardstown facility is one of five pork plants in the country that are exempt from the regulation. The five may operate faster because they are participating in a USDA pilot project to determine whether the number of inspectors can be reduced by turning inspection tasks over to company employees. USDA officials have expressed concern in the past that their inspections not become the cap on productivity, according to Human Rights Watch.

The actual line speed in Beardstown may be even faster than 1,200 hogs per hour, in light of remarks made in early June by second-shift American workers outside the Cargill plant. Several said that the speed of their lines had been increasing lately and that the company is now pushing for 20,000 hogs per day. Some are also working 10-hour Fridays every other week. What’s more, the company has not been replacing all of the workers who’ve quit recently, forcing those who remain to take up the slack.

With the plant 100 percent unionized, one might assume that at least the union is there to protect the workers. Local 431 of the UFCW was acclaimed in a spring 2001 issue of Working America for setting up a joint worker-management safety committee that has implemented hundreds of safety improvements at the plant since 1987. The national UFCW publication called the committee one of the best in the country.

In an interview, UFCW representative Duke Walters spoke at length about the committee’s ergonomics changes, such as shortening workers’ reaches by making stands adjustable. The committee also installed an automatic loin-puller for removing bone from ham, so that the worker’s job now consists of pushing buttons. But when it came to other topics, Walters was given to yes-or-no answers. He did say that the union was against the increase to 18,000 hogs per day because “we didn’t think it needed to be that high,” but he declined to comment on Cargill’s handling of repetitive-stress injuries or to divulge the company’s injury rate or its peak turnover rate in past years.

When asked why the company doesn’t routinely rotate workers to different jobs during the shift, Walters says that workers have that option but don’t take it because they’d have to be trained for another position. None of the immigrants I talked to was aware of that option. They insisted that the only way they could work another job was to bid for one posted on the job board.

Walters acknowledges feeling an obligation to help the company stay competitive. Indeed, immigrants I spoke with appear to view UFCW representatives as yet another arm of management. Thomas says that when a supervisor writes up an employee for an infraction of the rules, even if it’s unjustified, the union representative invariably signs off on it.

In worker-compensation cases, attorney Lamarca says, “We have always questioned to what extent the union represents their members in situations like this. They seem to be, at best, very selective in what battles they choose.” A Hispanic woman who works at the plant went to a union representative for help after the company nurse repeatedly maintained that the pains in her elbow, shoulder, and neck were not caused by years of cutting with a knife all day; they were just everyday aches and pains. The representative told her he couldn’t help her because the nurse deemed her pains unrelated to her job. Cargill finally moved her to a job that doesn’t require cutting, and her pain has diminished.

Most Americans cannot conceive of a job that does not pay for sick days, much less one that requires permission for a bathroom break. Cargill line workers, vital elements of the great productivity machine, must signal employees called general operators to replace them before they can leave for any reason. According to Thomas, Africans on second shift have occasionally been ignored by the general operators, most of whom are Hispanic. It does not happen to American or Hispanic workers, he says. In one case, the operator disappeared into a back office for an hour, during which time the urge to urinate became so unbearable that a nearby worker filled in, working twice as fast, to allow an African to use the bathroom.

This story belies Klein’s claim that any worker can ask his supervisor to slow the line when a worker is missing. Recently, Thomas reports, a new supervisor on the cut floor went so far as to decree that any worker who takes a bathroom break or is caught talking on his line will be fired.

Keeping the line moving seems to be the ulterior motive of the company, the medical staff, government, and even the union. With no one on watch, what’s to prevent Cargill from operating as fast as the equipment will allow? After all, the multinational conglomerate could use more profits to fuel the acquisition strategy it has been pursuing in recent years to become a global leader in specialty food ingredients. One can only wonder what the company did when the Ottumwa plant had to shut down for a week after the fatal accident last fall. With thousands of hogs already contracted for delivery, did they reroute at least some of them to Beardstown, just 125 miles away, and crank up production there? That might explain the jump in line speed and overtime last fall attested to by workers on second shift, which is overwhelmingly composed of Hispanic and African immigrants.

Meatpacking companies in Europe operate at virtually half the speed of American plants, yet Europeans manage to thrive. The drive for more, bigger, faster in America, however, continues unabated. It seems that profits are never high enough, expansion is never large enough, and the United States is never dominant enough in the world economy. In the midst of so much abundance, Americans are fretting about keeping out impoverished immigrants for fear they will take it all away, including wretched jobs that most Americans don’t want anyway.

These days, life in Togo looks very attractive to Thomas, who wistfully recalls working 7 a.m. to noon and 2 to 5 p.m. Once his five-year visa expires, he plans to return to his tiny homeland of beautiful beaches and magnificent waterfalls. He’ll leave behind a frazzled, frenetic country on a path to burnout with all its technological monstrosities, electronic gadgets, and unconscionable profits.

Maybe someday Americans, too, will realize that we were better off with nothing but grand vistas and generosity of spirit.

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