Meat Processors Look to Puerto Rico for Workers With the ongoing immigration crackdown, meat and poultry processors are desperate for legal workers. The average hourly wage is $11 to $12. To get legal workers, many plants must recruit heavily. A Cargill plant in Beardstown, Ill., recently began recruiting workers from Puerto Rico.
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Meat Processors Look to Puerto Rico for Workers

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Meat Processors Look to Puerto Rico for Workers

Meat Processors Look to Puerto Rico for Workers

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About this time last year immigration agents swept in and arrested more than 1200 illegal workers at Swift meatpacking plants in six states. The arrests set off a debate about whether or not immigrants take these grueling jobs away from Americans. Here is what Republican presidential candidate Duncan Hunter said about the raid at a debate last summer.

Representative DUNCAN HUNTER (Republican, California): There were American citizens lined up the next day to get their jobs back at 18 bucks an hour.

MONTAGNE: Well, not quite. The average hourly wage at meatpacking plants is 11 or 12 dollars an hour. And to get legal workers, many plants must recruit heavily. In fact, one Cargill meat processing plant in Beardstown, Illinois has started looking to Puerto Rico.

NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.

JENNIFER LUDDEN: In July, Cargill began running media ads in San Juan. Officials then flew over to conduct interviews there and in four other towns, where Andrea Augusto(ph) heard about the jobs. She was among the first group of Puerto Ricans that Cargill flew to its port processing plant in August.

Ms. ANDREA AUGUSTO: (Spanish spoken)

LUDDEN: It was for a change, she says, and for a better life for my three children. Augusto has doubled her salary. Maria Clayton(ph) had been the Beardstown plants' only Puerto Rican employee. She's been shuttling to the airport, picking up the new arrivals - 50 so far - and helping them settle in. Clayton says even the drive from the airport through Illinois' rural corn and bean country is something of a culture shock.

Ms. MARIA CLAYTON: Last night I picked up two people, and they were amazed. Oh my god, it's pitch black, it's pitch black. This is so far. Are we there yet?

LUDDEN: Clayton says they all asked what do you do for fun? She tells them not much.

Ms. CLAYTON: But I always tell them, you know, if you want to change your life and you want to save money and you want to feel safe, this is a good place to be.

LUDDEN: Cargill spokesman Mark Klein says the company's long had to recruit outside plant locations, targeting places with high unemployment. Puerto Ricans are attractive, of course, because they're U.S. citizens, but also...

Mr. MARK KLEIN (Spokesman, Cargill Meat Solutions): What interested us about Puerto Rico was there was a pork plant in Corozal that had closed a while back and we wanted to hire people that had meat experience.

LUDDEN: I asked Klein if anyone else in the industry is recruiting in Puerto Rico.

Mr. KLEIN: Well, unfortunately, we were - we don't think our competitors know about this yet.

LUDDEN: They may well pick up on it, says Mark Grey, who studies the meatpacking industry at the University of Northern Iowa. He says with the ongoing immigration crackdown there is a premium on finding legal workers.

Mr. MARK GREY (University of Northern Iowa): A lot of people in the industry have told me that, you know, they're running scared. You know, they've looked at the potential for they themselves to become arrested.

LUDDEN: The managers.

Mr. GREY: Be indicted. The managers, the recruiters, and everyone else.

LUDDEN: Grey says the industry is doing more to weed out illegal workers, but that cuts into a razor-thin profit margin - just one to three percent. To make money, he says, you need to cut up a lot of animals, and that takes a lot of people. And what of those Americans who lined up to get jobs after the Swift raids?

Mr. GREY: I have good authority that most of those folks never got out of training, or if they got to the floor they lasted hours and not days.

LUDDEN: In Beardstown, Illinois, the transition for the new Puerto Rican workers has not been all smooth. Shelly Heideman organizes aid for immigrants through the Elizabeth Ann Seton Program. She's had to expand her outreach for donations because the incoming Puerto Ricans need so much.

Ms. SHELLY HEIDEMAN (Elizabeth Ann Seton Program): First of all, they said winter clothing, especially for their children; furnishings, pots and pans, linens, towels, sheets, blankets, pretty much anything you need to establish a home.

LUDDEN: Andrea Augusto, who arrived in Illinois in August, says a couple fellow Puerto Ricans have already gone back.

Ms. AUGUSTO: (Spanish spoken)

LUDDEN: They didn't like the work, she said, and it's so cold inside the factory. We weren't really prepared for that. But Augusto says it's worth it for her. She recently brought one son over, and he plans to start work at the Cargill plant in January. She hopes to bring her two other children next summer.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.

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