Speaking of his experiences working at a Tyson Foods plant, University of Arkansas anthropology professor Steve Striffler gave a firsthand account of Mexican migrant life on the processing line — at a wage of $8 per hour, 40 hours a week, and with limited room for advancement.
Striffler spoke about imported labor and his forthcoming book “We’re All Mexicans Here: Poultry Processing, Latino Migration, and the Transformation of Class in the South” at a talk sponsored by the Agrarian Studies Program. The Sept. 19 talk drew approximately 40 people, from students and professors to agricultural interest groups from around New Haven. Yale anthropology professor Kate Dudley and Agrarian Studies Director Jim Scott introduced Striffler and offered their insights throughout the talk.
A culmination of years of effort, Striffler said he gave up the comforts of home to move to a mass-production processing plant where “Tyson processes job applicants like it processes poultry.” At this Arkansas plant, Striffler spent more than a year getting a firsthand account of the life of Mexican immigrants.
Working under a poster that read “Democracies depend on the political participation of its citizens, but not in the workplace,” Striffler served as a breading operator, known among the workers as a “harinero.” He said he came to understand the labor hardships and personal joys of the Hispanic community that took him in as one of their own.
“They have their own culture, fiestas and soccer games,” Striffler said. “They’re totally different outside the plant. Life’s actually much more fun as they enjoy everyday activities.”
But Striffler said even these outside activities take place under the shadow of Tyson Foods.
“Frequently, Tyson provides money for special events, to promote a day for Mexican culture, Cinco De Mayo, and give a little money to different sporting events, soccer teams and just a range of community activities just to get their name on it,” Striffler said. “Tyson dominates work. Why wouldn’t they dominate everything else?”
Striffler said directly experiencing the life of a migrant worker at Tyson was an extension of his international agrarian studies.
“I did research on the banana industry, and then went on to chicken plants and poultry centers,” Striffler said. “I found a huge Latin American population in Arkansas, which I found a little bit surprising for unionizing and questions of labor from Latin America, and it seemed a natural step from earlier research.”
On the issue of undocumented labor transplantation to American plants, Striffler said he was skeptical that the Immigration and Naturalization Service was doing all it could to enforce the laws.
“The INS knows there is a large number of undocumented immigrants working these plants and I believe they’re purposely looking away because these plants need these workers,” he said.
Striffler said after his experiences in Arkansas, he realized the importance of workers’ lives in mass production.
“We need to produce chickens differently, in a way that is better for workers and better for consumers,” he said.