Meat shortages: The wages of 'cheap' illegal labor

In 2004's preachy, much panned leftist mockumentary, A Day without a Mexican, the supposedly hypothetical scenario, about how California would fall apart if all its Mexicans, including illegals, somehow disappeared, was acted out.  The film had a grand old time portraying white people as a bunch of soft, privileged fools, unable to clean even their own toilets.

This is annoying because it lumps most Americans into a stereotype of a typically feckless, over-monied limousine liberal, such as you might really find in Hollywood circles.

But it did raise the question of U.S. dependence on illegal foreign labor.

Seems we might just be experiencing that now with the big meat plant shutdowns, based on problems with much of the labor force being out with the coronavirus.  The plants also are described in news reports as having an "immigrant" workforce.  Based on the number of ICE chicken plant raids seen in recent news, it's very likely that these plants, too, may be dependent on illegal alien labor.  With those workers now either out with COVID-19 or else in, and spreading it to others, the plants are going down.  Worse still, industry consolidation means that these plants are now few in number, so nothing can pick up the slack.  The shutdowns are expected to mean meat shortages at the groceries, curiously similar to Venezuela's.

According to the Associated Press:

Some massive meat processing plants have closed at least temporarily because their workers were sickened by the new coronavirus, raising concerns that there could soon be shortages of beef, pork and poultry in supermarkets.

The meat supply chain is especially vulnerable since processing is increasingly done at massive plants that butcher tens of thousands of animals daily, so the closure of even a few big ones can quickly be felt by customers. For instance, a Smithfield Foods plant that was forced to close in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, after nearly 300 of the plant's 3,700 workers tested positive for the virus produces roughly 5% of the U.S. pork supply each day.

In addition, conditions at plants can be ripe for exploitation by the virus: Workers stand shoulder-to-shoulder on the line and crowd into locker rooms to change their clothes before and after shifts.

Just as the coronavirus crisis drove home the foolhardiness of corporate America outsourcing all of its manufacturing, including that of medicine, to China, so the upcoming meat shortages highlight the problem of dependency on a vast army of illegal "immigrant" labor for the nation's food processing.  Glenn Reynolds at Instapundit noted the problem here:


The New York Times and others cite the crowded conditions of meat-packing plants as one reason why workers are getting sick in high enough numbers at plants to force their shutdown.  While it may or may not be correctable, there's obviously a limited replacement workforce for this kind of hard and disagreeable work.  The money isn't great, either — the average earning in the big South Dakota Smithfield plant is $17.70 an hour, not a lovely wage for the hard work of stripping out animal guts from cows and pigs or picking the feathers and skin off chickens.  The hard working conditions might just be the work of choice for people with low bargaining power owing to their illegal status.  But that's not good when it involves the nation's meat supply.

The company itself has made some questionable calls, too, if the media reporting is right.  Vox reports that workers were promised $500 bonuses at the Smithfield plant if they didn't miss work for a month.  Got a cough?  Come to work so you won't miss your bonus. 

Speaking of bonuses, illegals may be even more incentivized to come to work while sick based on the fact that they aren't getting $1,200 stimulus checks to tide them over.  If staying home to get well means no money at all, the incentive is there to come to work in close quarters while sick, which is apparently what happened.  This is not an argument that they should get the checks.  It's an argument that the U.S. shouldn't be dependent on workers for food processing in a consolidated industry who might feel compelled to come to work sick instead of stay home if they show symptoms of COVID-19.

As Reynolds notes, it comes down to conditions.  If a plant can have tough working conditions and still attract a workforce to do the work, it will do that.  If it can't, it needs to raise its wages and improve its working conditions to attract a wider and more flexible workforce. 

The industry consolidation is another issue that seems to be compounding the problem.  According to the Times, meat industry is now centralized with huge consolidated plants, another byproduct of globalization, same as illegal immigrant labor dependency. Who owns the Smithfield plant in this consolidation rage? Here's the Times:

In the 1980s and ’90s, companies like Smithfield, which is now owned by a Chinese pork company, bought out competitors and designed massive plants that could slaughter more than a million animals a year. At the same time, meatpacking became more concentrated in a few states where animal feed is grown, like Iowa and South Dakota.

The net result of these two products of globalization - illegal immigrant labor and Chinese consolidated ownership -- is meat shortages.

Why did Venezuela get meat shortages? Yes, socialist mismanagement, price controls, and corruption for sure. But overdependency on oil as its sole source of revenue was very much part of it, too. The high dollars the Venezuelan government was raking in from globally traded oil during the boom of the aught years pretty well drove other Venezuelan industries out of business, given that they were in no position to export competitively with their currency bloated in value and they couldn't afford imported raw materials, either. 

Seems the dependencies on illegal labor and consolidated industries don't work well to ensure production in a pandemic, either. The meat shortages are here, too.

Which once again demonstrates that cheap labor isn's so cheap after all, particularly when it's monopoly labor. And the efficiencies of consolidation and centralization have costs too when there's a need for competition to pick up the slack. When the competition is gone, whether of labor or companies, you get the approximate result of centralized Venezuelan or Bernie Sanders-style socialism where the government controls everything. Happens every time.

Socialism can't correct itself. Capitalism, though can. And one hopes the coronavirus crisis is a wakeup call on the problems of dependency on cheap illegal foreign labor and consolidated foreign ownership.

Photo illustration by Monica Showalter using public domain sources and image by Michael Vadon via Wikimedia Commons and FlickrCC BY-SA 2.0.

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