Big Poultry finds workers in an immigrant community known for its culture of forgiving

Albious Latior, a native of the Marshall Islands, today works with the Marshallese community in Springdale, AR through the Northwest Arkansas Workers’ Justice Center. Photo: Mary Babic / Oxfam America

Thousands of people from the Marshall Islands have migrated across the world to work in the poultry industry and build a community in Springdale, AR, home of Tyson Foods.

The booming poultry industry in America is built on the backs of workers on the processing line; they earn low wages of diminishing value, suffer high rates of injury and illness, and have little voice or dignity in their labor. The following story is part of a series by Oxfam to expose the reality of life on the line, and to show you how you can help.

On a sleepy side street in Springdale, Arkansas, a low-slung building features a barber shop, an attorney’s office--and the Consulate General of the Republic of the Marshall Islands.

The office squats in the middle of Arkansas because thousands of Marshallese live in Springdale (estimates range from 6,000 to 20,000), making it the largest population of Marshallese outside their own country (pop. 70,000). They follow in the footsteps of John Moody, one of the first Marshallese to work on the line in a Tyson plant, starting in the 1980s. He would return to the islands and spread the word about jobs: jobs that were arduous and dangerous (he lost the tip of his index finger on a saw), but that were regular and full-time. Moody’s name still resonates with the Marshallese.

On a sleepy side street in Springdale, Arkansas, a squat building houses the Consulate General of the Marshall Islands, along with a barber shop and a law office. Photo: Mary Babic / Oxfam America

Albious Latior, who today works with the Marshallese community in Springdale through the Northwest Arkansas Workers’ Justice Center, notes that Moody specifically brought the name of Tyson as the premiere poultry company in the US. “Tyson is the biggest one and well known in our community. Even if you work with another poultry company, when people at the island ask you where your son works, they say ‘Tyson’.”

The Marshallese come to the US as legal residents, admitted as nonimmigrants under the terms of the Compact of Free Association (COFA, first enacted in 1986). However, while they may live, work, study, and pay taxes, they are denied a range of benefits, such as Medicare and Medicaid.

Mary Goff, former staff attorney with Legal Aid of Arkansas, notes, “There is a major drawback with the COFA--which is that they are not entitled to certain public benefits. And that ends up being Supplemental Security Income, and Medicaid, and SNAP benefits. The Medicaid is a huge problem right now, especially with the Affordable Care Act changes. But they are excluded from that because of their immigration status.”

Chased away by radiation

The Marshall Islands, geographically part of Micronesia, are located near the equator in the Pacific Ocean. The population of slightly over 70,000 is spread out over 1,000 islands and islets. The next largest group of Marshallese is located in Springdale, Arkansas, home of Tyson Foods. Graphic: Google Maps

The Marshall Islands sit in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, about halfway between Hawaii and Australia. The US conducted dozens of nuclear weapons tests (at least 67) in the Islands between 1946 and 1958. The radioactive fallout rendered some islands uninhabitable; the Marshallese say they are still dealing with the effects of the radiation on the land, water, and air.

“They dropped the bombs and practiced at our island,” notes Latior. “Just imagine that the fish and people moving around were radiated … the ocean is radiation, the island is radiation. And we don't want to be there when there is radiation in there. So we have to find somewhere to go to live--to raise good family. So we decided America.”

Latior notes that the Marshallese first moved to Guam, then to California, and eventually to Arkansas-- specifically to work in the poultry industry. 

Culture shock for an island people

When the Marshallese arrive in the US, they are eager to find full-time jobs with a steady paycheck. Latior notes, the poultry plants “are easy to get in. And every Friday they get paid. That's the only reason why they love the poultry.”

However, Latior goes on to say that the Marshallese face problems adjusting to an industrialized economy schedule, pace, and hierarchy. He and others refer to the Marshallese having different understandings of time and punctuality, of family relations (the Marshall Islands are a matriarchy, and childcare duties are shared by extended family networks), and of relationships. Recent media pieces have reported on the unique and vulnerable nature of the population, especially as it relates to adoption.

He believes that this makes it easy for the poultry industry to take advantage of the Marshallese. “This is their first real job. In the island they were a farmer or fisherman… As everything is new to them, they [the industry] are taking advantage of them to mistreat them.”

Goff notes that, “They are not as up to speed with the westernized culture, including all of the workplace rights and responsibilities. So I would say that they are even less educated on their rights in the workplace… So if the authority says so, that must be what it is and the way it is. So they are exploited heavily in the poultry industry.”

Latior characterizes the Marshallese as “forgiving,” noting that when someone hurts them, they will quickly forgive. “Our culture is, really, we forgive people real fast. Meaning that even if you do something bad to us, we'll forgive you at that moment.” 

He notes that not only are they forgiving, they’re uninformed, and they’re afraid of losing their jobs – which is not uncommon for many workers in the poultry industry. Of the roughly 250,000 poultry workers in the US, most are minorities, immigrants, or refugees. Many analysts say the industry takes advantage of the special demographics to create a climate of fear. As Rosa, who worked at a Tyson plant in Arkansas, notes, “They want submissive employees… For them, a happy employee is a quiet one.”

Many immigrants report they do not get training in a language they understand, and do not know their rights to safety and fair compensation. Many workers report being harassed when they do speak out, threatened with being assigned “points” in a disciplinary system, or fired, or even deported. When workers are injured, they are sometimes afraid to report problems.

“They don't know that they have the right to talk about how they're mistreated at work, and also lot of things they are not knowing that they have the right to know at the workplace,” says Latior. “A lot of Marshallese come to say they was hurt at the workplace but they cannot come forward because they're scared to lose their job.”

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