LOCAL CALIFORNIA

In California's poultry plants, refugees fill the vacuum left after President Bush's immigration raid

Taiseer Al Souki spends most days on his feet at a Foster Farms poultry plant, hefting table-sized plastic brown boxes and feeding them into a machine that cleans them.

He plugs his ears to soften the deafening clang of heavy machinery as he cycles through the same motion for hours on end.

At night, after slumping to sleep in exhaustion, the 44-year-old Syrian refugee dreams that he’s at the plant, still hoisting box after box filled with chicken destined for dinner tables across America.

Al Souki does not complain. He fled war-torn Syria and worked backbreaking 12-hour shifts in his home country and Jordan before making his way to the United States. He is grateful for the $10.50 an hour he collects at the poultry plant.

“I like work. I need work,” he said in the smattering of English he has picked up. “Without work, not a man.”

Taiseer Al Souki worked 12-hour shifts in his home country before making his way to the United States.
Taiseer Al Souki worked 12-hour shifts in his home country before making his way to the United States. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
Al Souki leaves home for his shift at a Foster Farms chicken processing plant.
Al Souki leaves home for his shift at a Foster Farms chicken processing plant. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Al Souki needs the work—and employers in the meatpacking industry say they need workers like him. Refugees have increasingly become vital workers in an industry with high turnover. And the growing unrest and bloodshed in the Middle East and elsewhere have readily supplied them in places like the Central Valley.

The refugee and immigrant populations ”certainly have been a significant part, an integral part of our workforce for decades,” said Tom Super, a spokesman for the National Chicken Council.

It’s difficult to know exactly how many refugees work in this occupation but roughly one-third of workers in the industry in 2010 were foreign-born, according to a peer-reviewed article in Choices, a publication of the Agricultural and Applied Economics Assn., a nonprofit that serves those who work in agricultural and broadly related fields of applied economics.

Mark Lauritsen, director of the food-processing division at the United Food & Commercial Workers International Union, estimates that nationwide tens of thousands of refugees are part of the roughly 250,000 unionized meat and poultry plant workers.

In California, most of the meatpacking industry is located in the Central Valley. It’s become one of the biggest employers for refugee resettlement agencies and other nonprofits aiding the population in those areas.

Although the industry in the Golden State is smaller than in other parts of the country—particularly the Midwest—the foreign-born population has found its way to Foster Farms for decades now. Recently, an influx of refugees—mostly from the Middle East—started to arrive in Fresno and Turlock. They too are joining the poultry plant’s labor force.

In 2010, Foster Farms in Turlock began hiring refugees placed by the International Rescue Committee, a refugee resettlement agency, said Christine Lemonda, deputy director of the IRC's Northern California offices. Since then, the agency has placed more than 150 refugees at the poultry plant. In the last six months, 15 have been hired—an uptick—at Foster Farms, Lemonda said.

“It all started out with the very first refugee finding a job and opening the floodgate for his or her community,” said Jim Stokes, a site manager at IRC in Turlock. “They established their own pipeline and inroads and started working there.”

Immigrants have long been integral to the meatpacking industry, but refugees surfaced as a key labor force starting in 2006, according to experts who study the phenomenon.

That year the George W. Bush administration directed immigration enforcement agents to raid meat processing plants in six states. Operation Wagon Train—the largest single work-enforcement action in U.S. history—led to the arrest of an estimated 1,300 people working in the country illegally.

Though it did not stop the industry from completely cutting off the hiring of unauthorized workers, the raids had a chilling effect.

The growing unrest and bloodshed in the Middle East and elsewhere provided a refugee population from which to fill the labor vacuum, said Lavinia Limon, chief executive officer and president of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, a resettlement organization.

“What the meatpacking industry knows is that these are really good workers. They show up on time. They say ‘yes’ when they are told what to do. They do what is necessary for their survival,” Limon said.”It works really well for employers.”

Refugee Nibonid Balanj is studying to be an electrical engineer in Turlock.
Refugee Nibonid Balanj is studying to be an electrical engineer in Turlock. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Nibonid Balanj, a 32-year-old Iranian refugee, said he started working at Foster Farms a few months after he arrived in Turlock in January 2013. He worked on the “killing line.” Usually, he’d gut the turkeys and prepared them for packaging, he said.

He’d clock in at 1 a.m. and clock out at 9:30 a.m., shower and try to learn English watching captioned movies on Netflix.

Balanj, who studied to become an electrician in Iran, didn’t mind the work.

“When I first came I didn’t even know how to say ‘I’m an electrician.’ I didn’t know how to explain myself but I had a job. I worked on language,” he said.

Balanj hustled and proved that he could do more, eventually working his way up to maintenance team leader and making $25 an hour. He saved enough to buy his own home last year. Now, his English is good. In January, he left Foster Farms to take what he called a more challenging job and to study for an electrician’s license.

During his time at the poultry plant, Balanj noticed that about 90% of the workers were foreigners and almost nobody’s first language was English, he said.

“It’s the biggest opportunity all the foreign people have here,” he said.

Syrian refugee Omar Bakir fled his home in Homs and is now unemployed and out of cash after quitting his job at the Foster Farms chicken processing plant.
Syrian refugee Omar Bakir fled his home in Homs and is now unemployed and out of cash after quitting his job at the Foster Farms chicken processing plant. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

The meatpacking industry has become so reliant on refugees that the North American Meat Institute, an industry lobby group, released a statement stating their concerns after President Trump issued an executive action restricting citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries and all refugees from entry into the United States.

“Historically, our industry has become an excellent starting point for new Americans. Immigrants and refugees can be an important component of some companies’ labor forces, especially in rural areas where low unemployment creates a tight labor supply,” meat institute President and CEO Barry Carpenter said in a written statement.

There is no formal arrangement between IRC and Foster Farms, but that may change soon.

The resettlement agency and Foster Farms are looking at possibly extending their relationship and formalizing a partnership in the next few months, Foster Farms spokesman Ira Brill said. He declined to talk more about the issue.

Stokes said it’s not unusual for their office to receive calls from Foster Farms human resources officials telling them about job openings at the plant and urging them to have refugees apply.

Many refugees jump at the chance because a formal education and English are not key requirements for entry-level jobs where there is a union and good benefits, said Wasan Abu Baker, a case worker for Fresno Interdenominational Refugee Ministries, a nonprofit agency in Fresno that helps refugees.

“It’s hard labor,” she warns the refugees, so they know what they’re getting themselves into.

Wasan Abu Baker, center, is helping a Syrian refugee family from the city of Homs adjust to life in the United States during a visit to the family's home in Fresno.
Wasan Abu Baker, center, is helping a Syrian refugee family from the city of Homs adjust to life in the United States during a visit to the family's home in Fresno. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Abu Baker said about half of the 27 Syrian families they serve have a family member working in entry-level positions with Foster Farms. Recently, she served as an translator during the orientation, translating from English to Arabic the safety rules and other company policies.

She said Foster Farms benefits from the Muslim refugee population because most pass the drug test, Abu Baker said.

“Muslims don’t do drugs due to religious reasons,” Abu Baker said. “It’s prohibited.”

On a recent weekend, she helped translate the Foster Farms benefits package that Al Souki brought home to his wife Maisaa Al Hamawi. Their 22-month-old daughter Salwa—the youngest of six children— tugged at her father’s shirt, demanding attention as Abu Baker explained to Al Souki that a retirement plan is included as part of his benefits.

He nodded in agreement and smiled.

When asked whether he’d want his children to someday work at the poultry plant, both Al Hamawi and Al Souki shook their heads.

Al Hamawi quickly responded in Arabic: “We want them to study.”

Al Souki scooped up Salwa, put her on his lap and said: “I wish a better life for my children.”

cindy.carcamo@latimes.com

Follow Cindy Carcamo on Twitter @thecindycarcamo

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