The smell of the poultry processing plant in Dobson, North Carolina, hits you the second you drive into town, and it hits you hard. As someone who grew up a town over, there was a sense of false superiority based on the fact that while your town was in the country, no one would ever complain that it smelled like chicken shit.
Aside from the odors, even teenagers were aware that Wayne Farms, one of the biggest employers in Surry County, heavily staffed migrant workers. When COVID-19 first crept into smaller counties, the plant was one of the first places there to announce an outbreak. It wasn’t isolated to Wayne Farms; other meatpacking plants and farms across the state began reporting outbreaks, too.
The pandemic has revealed that our collective sense of comfort and convenience exists because of the exploitation of vulnerable members of society—that low prices have a high human cost.
This Sunday, I suggest taking time out of your day to read an investigative story from Durham’s Scalawag Magazine in partnership with Type Investigations that chronicles the abuses Latinx workers in food processing have faced the last year. The report focuses on Mountaire Farms, a Siler City poultry plant that uses a third-party contractor to source some of its labor.
This third party, a mysterious group called NIPCAM, is said to hire undocumented migrants who are then paid less than true employees of Mountaire. The company, which obscures most of its history, seems to use this as an excuse to pay their staff much less on average and fail to provide paid time off in the event of a positive COVID test. The situation makes it easy for human rights abuses to go unchecked.
Aside from the obvious effects of COVID cases, the workers at Mountaire Farms have not been able to find justice within the N.C. Department of Labor or the Department of Health and Human Services. They are also scared to look for help; government programs are seen as potential ways Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) can seek you out.
One of the main workers interviewed is Mariaisela Martínez, a former contract employee at Mountaire who has gone public with her stories of the treatment at these plants. This is not a common practice in immigration reporting, where the use of someone’s name can have tangible consequences, including tipping off ICE to undocumented migrants in their communities. Her bravery illustrates the severity of the situation at hand.
This is not a feel-good read, but it’s an important one. It may feel like we’re out of the pandemic, but the consequences—as well as new variants—are far from done with us. Hopefully, you can at least understand why the next package of chicken you buy at the store is able to be that cheap, or the horrors happening at the plant you’ve always known for its smell.
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