Jeremy Beck's picture


  by  Jeremy Beck

The headline looks intended to wound, but Nick Miroff's story in the Washington Post, "Trump says American workers are hurt by immigration. But after ICE raided this Texas town, they never showed up" is worth celebrating.

Miroff reports that over a decade after the largest workplace enforcement action took place during the Bush administration, wages at the plant have increased by 25 percent, illegal workers have been replaced by legal workers (many of them refugees who were living in other states, some of them citizens) and workers now receive health benefits.

The headline (reporters typically do not write their own headlines) suggests that these permanently-resettled refugee workers aren't real Americans but that's nonsense. They have as much right to a U.S. job as any citizen or legal permanent resident. Less-educated immigrants and refugees are often the first groups to benefit from lower levels of illegal hiring and new low-skilled immigration because they frequently compete for the same jobs (after the raids, Swift regularly bought time on Spanish-language radio to advertise job openings).

Miroff reports that the meatpacking plant could attract even more legal workers if it offered wages that were competitive with the nearby oil refinery but anonymous "industry experts" reject that idea:

A Valero oil refinery is Moore County’s other big employer, and its workers are mostly U.S.-born. Jobs there require significantly more skills, and fluent English. Asked what it would take for more local workers to take jobs in meatpacking, many here say JBS would have to pay as much as the refinery, where wages are $30 an hour or more.

American packing plants could pay that much, industry experts say. But that would mean much, much more expensive meat, and it would probably drive JBS out of Cactus.

According to Miroff, the meatpacking industry enjoys "soaring export demands and annual U.S. sales approaching $100 billion." That puts the anonymous industry experts' claims in a useful context but their warning of "much more expensive meat" deserves more scrutiny. Pulitzer-prize-winning former journalist Jerry Kammer investigated the Bush-era workplace raids and found some hard data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that indicated that meat packers could increase wages by one-third and the average retail cost of meat would rise by only two to three percent.

Kammer's report also includes an historical wage perspective:

Expressed in 2009 dollars the average hourly wage for a worker in this industry was $21.75 in 1980 compared to $12.03 in 2007. This represents a 45 percent decline in real wages. This decline in wages can only be described as enormous, and devastating to the standard of living for workers in an industry that once sustained a blue-collar middle class.

Miroff reports that Swift workers "earn wages that average more than $17 an hour, in addition to health benefits and free language classes, making it one of the best-paying jobs in the United States for someone who speaks little or no English." That may be (and the improved wages and benefits are great news) but the same jobs in 1980 were paying the more than $25 an hour in 2018 wages. If Swift offered its workers the adjusted equivalent of 1980 wages, it would be much more competitive with that oil refinery.

Industries that have been corrupted by business models built on illegal hiring have a long way to go to make themselves attractive to a broader swath of the American workforce. E-Verify would make the transition easier by reducing the need for disruptive raids. 95 percent of business support mandatory E-Verify if it includes a safe harbor provision for employers who use the program in good faith. The Goodlatte bill (H.R. 4760) includes such a provision. It currently has 96 sponsors and the backing of the White House.

JEREMY BECK is the Director of the Media Standards Project for NumbersUSA


Updated: Wed, Mar 21st 2018 @ 9:10am EDT

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