Our VoiceImmigration

Refugee Struggles in Minnesota’s Meat-Packing Plants


Garat Ibrahim • Jun 17, 2011

Over the last two decades the trend of Somali refugees moving from their war torn homeland to America, so often finding work in small meat packing plants, has had a profound impact in small towns across the Midwest and the Great Plains.

These refugees come to these places seeking shelter, yes, but also to join the fabric of these small towns—to become enmeshed in them. In early 1993, many came to the meat packing plant in Marshall, Minnesota, and then to central Minnesota, and to towns like Cold Spring, Melrose, and Pelican Rapids.

Two decades later, though, the number of refugees in Minnesota has increased from other counties, like Burma and Sudan, and from other plants and communities in Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, and Kansas.

And together with the members of the aforementioned Somali communities, these groups of people have joined the long list of workers being exploited by the meatpacking industry at-large:

  • Many workers are fired without explanation by overbearing supervisors who regularly seek to intimidate their workers into subservience.
  • Although lunch breaks are provided, the time it takes an individual to change out of and back into her or his required work clothes is not factored into their work day. This means this amount of time is subtracted from their lunch breaks, which shortens them considerably.
  • Many supervisors deny their workers bathroom breaks, with many workers only being able to use the bathroom before and/or after they’ve finished their shifts. Using the Jennie-O Plant in Melrose, MN, as an example, 300 workers end their shift simultaneously and must then exit the plant and its parking lot. This obviously takes quite a bit of time. Many of these workers must then drive well over a half-an-hour one way to reach their homes.

Many of these injustices are compounded by the present economic and gas price crises, as many workers cannot change jobs or even move to a different plant within the same industry. The vast of majority of workers at the Jenneo Plant commute from Saint Cloud, which sees one-third of their salary siphoned off simply to pay for gas. Furthermore, working hours at the plant have been reduced, which only compounds their difficulties to an exponential degree.

It should be pointed out that so many workers from so many backgrounds and communities struggle daily with these same issues.

Knowing that these factory workers are truly dedicated to their work, some leaders of the Health Action Council have even begun encouraging workers in different communities to relocate to the communities where they work. So far, a couple of families have, with many more are expected to follow suit over the coming months.

Regardless, the figurative and literal costs they are asked to pay, again, like so many workers, are simply far too severe.

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