Our VoiceImmigration

Who’s Thanksgiving is it Anyway?


Charlotte Williams • Oct 15, 2010

It’s October and already the annual super bowl of livestock marketing campaign is in full gear.  According to Lara Durben, of the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association, “One-third of all turkey consumed in the United States is eaten in the fourth quarter, and half of that ends up on Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner tables.” The super 3 of turkey and poultry – Tyson, Jennie-O, and Cargill – are well into the holiday season with unprecedented production of turkey, pork, and chicken.  Consumer demand dictates the prices and production – which informs processing plants regarding addition of workers and even adding an additional shift in order to keep up with the demand.  “Today, people are enjoying turkey all year long, with only 29% of turkey being consumed at Thanksgiving.”

That being so, plant workers tell stories of restless nights and being awakened by a throbbing, and shooting pain in their hands and legs.  These annoying and progressively worsening pains bombard the muscles throughout the night. Pain is temporarily relieved with flexing and massaging the fingers, wrists and legs; more often than not, only after several does of muscle relaxer.  However, in spite of ongoing sleep deprivation, poultry workers faithfully show up to the plants, just before dawn, to stand, cut, throw, chop, pull and push the birds and carcasses on rapid speed processing equipment – for hours.

Workers describe the consistent injuries and symptoms of injuries common to workers in poultry processing plants throughout this country.  “Injury has become endemic to the industry. With rapid line speeds, poultry workers handle as many as 30 turkeys a minute.”   At turkey plants across this country, “Workers use scissors, knives and saws to cut wing tips, wings and legs from birds.”  These rapid, continuous motions leaver workers with, “cuts, nerve damage and repetitive-motion (repetitive-stress) injuries such as tendinitis and carpal tunnel syndrome are common.  Workers use their knives and hands to separate the meat from the skin and bones. Some employees make more than 20,000 cuts each day.”

Conversely, while many across the country prepare for the holiday season, ensured of paid time off, attending family gatherings and no-worry festivities; the opposite is true for exploited, at-risk immigrant workers in turkey and pork processing plants.  To them, the holiday season, means working overtime, up to and through, the holidays, often being denied time off to relax and enjoy  themselves.  Plant supervisors and managers intimidate and threaten workers through quick changes on the line – with inadequate training – unjustified job demotion, additional hazards, miscellaneous menial tasks and termination.  This is quite prevalent when workers request time off, particularly the amount of time required to visit with family in their home country.

Plant workers experience wage theft, lack of or insufficient protective equipment, and harassing insinuations referring to their heavy accented language (which has been used as an organized anti-immigrant campaign tactic in Arizona), cultural traditions, and deeply rooted values.  Contrary to the anti-immigrant rhetoric, immigrant worker values include extensive community ties, strong faith foundations, and a proven history to endure and overcome in the midst of extreme challenge.

Unlike the commercialized commemoration of Thanksgiving the principles of gratitude, family and faith inferred in the historic Thanksgiving holiday (an annual observation grounded in racist ideology and action) are profoundly exemplified the unfolding events Chile.  From around the globe, nations encouraged the small community at San Jose Mine as they mobilized and built a spiritual community of support and a physical scared space in their vision for victory -Camp Hope.  In this encampment the families and supporters lived together, prayed together, cared for one another and struggled through the immense challenges that accompanied the unimaginable occurrence of 33 men being trapped for 69 days in an underground prison thousands of feet below ground.  They were committed to doing so until all the men were freed!

As the second Chilean miner reached fresh air and an awaiting community of faithful believers, he jubilantly proclaimed, “I’m so happy!” and sharing how he had “spent the last 10 weeks between God and the devil.”  Clearly, freedom at this magnitude is a test of physical endurance, spiritual fortitude and discernment of the opposing forces in our human existence.

Nevertheless, even as turkey processing workers face yet another holiday season under dangerous and stressful working conditions, they humbly do the best job they can do.  Living in the tension between justice and injustice, they pray for safekeeping as they enter the plant.  Why?  They never lose sight of the priority, the desire for an improved quality of life for their families – by any means necessary.

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