Immigration raids at two Eastern Shore poultry plants last week exposed a widespread practice by the Shore's largest industry. Despite unemployment averaging more than 10 percent in the area, poultry companies are hiring -- and have even recruited -- Mexicans and other immigrants.
Although the raids netted 56 suspected illegal aliens, poultry plant executives say they never knowingly hire undocumented workers. But they look for immigrant workers because natives of the Shore don't apply for many of the plants' jobs. And the immigrants acknowledge that they're happy for any kind of steady job.
Still, immigrants, the unemployed and Immigration and Naturalization Service officials say that's not the whole story.
They charge that the companies prefer immigrants because they are willing to labor long and hard for low pay -- for jobs such as gutting chickens. They often don't know about workers' rights, such as compensation for job-related injuries. And they rarely complain.
"I believe that the companies do take advantage of us," said one Mexican poultry worker who was arrested in one of last week's raids. (He asked not to be identified because family members, some of whom are here illegally, remain on the Shore.)
"They know for a fact that we need the work, regardless of what the pay might be. They know [they] can ask from us anything they want," he said, adding that though he often put in 70 or 80 hours a week, his co-workers often harassed him.
"Here," he said, "I am less than a rat."
The Eastern Shore, whose population for 300 years was made up almost exclusively of the descendants of European farmers and African slaves, has seen a dramatic influx of Hispanic immigrants in the past few years.
The latest Census shows the number of Spanish-speaking people in the Maryland portion of the Shore nearly tripled -- to about 3,800 -- between 1980 and 1990.
And although that's only 1.4 percent of the total population, Hispanics make up a much bigger share of the poultry processors' work force. Showell Farms Inc., of Showell, for example, says that about half its local work force is made up of Mexican or Central American immigrants.
Until a decade ago, those jobs were held mainly by the Shore's black residents, who had been limited by historical segregation to menial jobs. Today, though, they say they have better opportunities in other industries -- even if it means drawing unemployment benefits for part of the year.
Maryland poultry plant workers earned an average of $13,500 in 1990, about 75 percent of what other Eastern Shore workers earned, government figures show.Twenty years ago, poultry workers earned 90 percent of the average regional wage.
And the plant jobs can be dangerous.
As the injury rate in U.S. workplaces stabilized at slightly more than three injuries for every 100 workers in recent years, problems have worsened in chicken plants, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has found. Reported injuries in the nation's poultry plants rose by 20 percent in the past %J decade, so that now 25 of every 100 workers suffer a work-related injury or illness each year.
Given all this, the Rev. Jesse Watson of Salisbury, who used to work as a supervisor in a nearby poultry plant, said it doesn't make economic sense to take plant jobs any more.
Instead, he says, people are better off taking relatively well-paid construction or tourism jobs in Ocean City during the summer and collecting unemployment in the winter. "You can earn $12,000 in five months and collect unemployment for seven months -- in a chicken plant you're only going to make $13,000" in 50 weeks of hard work, he said.
Undeserved poor reputation
Although some companies, such as Showell, have recruited workers from Texas in the past, for the most part the companies say they haven't intentionally displaced local residents from jobs. On the contrary, they say they wish local workers would apply for their openings.
David Pogge, president of Mountaire of Delmarva Inc., a Selbyville, Del.-based company, says he's puzzled by reports of high unemployment -- more than 10 percent in the Maryland portion of the Shore.
"I've got 75 job openings right now," he said. Many are chicken-cutting jobs that start as low as $6 an hour, but others, such as supervisory jobs, pay as much as $30,000 a year, he said.
Mr. Pogge says the industry has an undeservedly poor reputation for working conditions. "We treat our people well. We've got great food in the cafeteria. We offer GED classes at lunchtime. It's not $20 an hour, but how many jobs like that are there out there?"
lTC To critics' claims that Shore people could be lured by better wages, Mr. Pogge says he doesn't have any choice but to pay the prevailing wage for poultry line jobs -- about $6 to $6.50 an hour.