In economics, culture, and politics, the poultry industry has had dramatic effects on central Mississippi. Since the mid-1990s its recruitment of Latino immigrant workers has reshaped the region’s demographics.
The state’s poultry industry began in Scott County, and it remains home to the greatest concentration of poultry plants. Since the 1950s chicken processing has been the primary source of employment for many local working families. The budding industry originally employed a largely white workforce but shifted to a mostly black labor pool in the 1960s as technological advances deskilled and increased poultry production; mechanization eliminated jobs in cotton; government incentives spurred industrial growth in the area, producing new job opportunities for white workers; and struggles for civil rights increasingly turned to economic concerns. When black workers began to organize in the 1970s for better pay and working conditions, the industry responded by turning to Latino immigrant labor.
B. C. Rogers Poultry, headquartered in Morton, was the first Mississippi poultry operation to recruit Latino migrants. Asserting that “there was no labor available to us here,” the company brought in Mexican and Mexican American workers from El Paso, Texas, in 1977. This experiment lasted only a few years, and almost no Latino families stayed in the area. The 1980 defeat of a union organizing drive at B. C. Rogers, coupled with Reagan-era reforms to federal welfare policy, enabled management to maintain power over its workforce and continue to reap profits without imported labor.
The industry grew considerably in the 1980s, as health concerns and corporate advertising campaigns dramatically increased US chicken consumption. Furthermore, Mississippi’s poultry processors cultivated an international export market. By the early 1990s, according to a Scott County newspaper, “it has become difficult for local poultry producers to staff late shifts because of labor shortages.” B. C. Rogers executives claimed 90 percent turnover rates, 50 percent absentee rates on the night shift, and 300 employment vacancies.
In 1993 B. C. Rogers agents headed to South Texas in search of workers. The company brought in between seven hundred and eight hundred workers over a six-month period, but few stayed. Seeking new ways to lower turnover rates, the company began advertising jobs in a Miami newspaper. B. C. Rogers soon instituted a formal Hispanic Project, transporting a bus full of Latino migrants to Mississippi each week and providing them with corporate housing, though it was often cramped and uncomfortable. Housing and transportation costs were deducted from workers’ paychecks, frequently leaving them with extremely low earnings. Between 1994 and 2001 the Hispanic Project brought thousands of workers from Miami, and other poultry processors in central Mississippi quickly inaugurated similar programs.
During the 1990s most of these Latino immigrants to Scott County came from Cuba, Nicaragua, Honduras, and the Dominican Republic. In Leake County, Guatemalans came from South Florida to work slaughtering chickens at Choctaw Maid Farms. By the turn of the century migrants from Miami increasingly came from Argentina, Peru, and Uruguay, and communities in Veracruz, Chiapas, and Oaxaca, Mexico, subsequently began sending migrants to Scott, Leake, Madison, and Jones Counties. Mississippi’s Latin American community is exceptionally diverse, with significant differences in nationality, class, race, ethnicity, gender, language, and legal status creating obstacles to collective organizing. Scott County alone has Latino immigrants from more than a dozen countries. Nevertheless, much of this heterogeneity is elided, with most native Mississippians calling the migrants simply “Hispanic” or even “Mexican.”
Recent immigration from Latin America has changed the landscape of central Mississippi. Local economies have grown, especially the niches of Hispanic groceries, international wire transfer services, rental housing, and used car sales. Schools have had to adapt to students whose first language is not English. Health care providers struggle to communicate with Spanish-speaking patients. For their part, undocumented immigrants struggle with increasingly punitive federal, state, and local policies that make it difficult for them to drive cars, open bank accounts, or get decent jobs.
Poultry companies often ignore these problems, finding ways around federal immigration and employment laws and using third-party labor contractors to staff portions of their production lines.
- Anita Grabowski, “La Pollera: Latin American Poultry Workers in Morton, Mississippi,” Institute of Latin American Studies, University of Texas at Austin (2003)
- D. C. Griffith, Jones’s Minimal: Low-Wage Labor in the United States (1993)
- L. E. Helton and Angela C. Stuesse, “Race, Low-Wage Legacies, and the Politics of Poultry Processing: Intersections of Contemporary Immigration and African American Labor Histories in Central Mississippi,” paper presented at Southern Labor Studies Conference, Birmingham, Alabama (2004)
- Human Rights Watch, Blood, Sweat, and Fear: Workers’ Rights in US Meat and Poultry Plants (2004)
- Steve Striffler, Chicken: The Dangerous Transformation of America’s Favorite Food (2005)
- Angela C. Stuesse, “Globalization ‘Southern Style’: Transnational Migration, the Poultry Industry, and Implications for Organizing Workers across Difference” (PhD dissertation, University of Texas at Austin, 2008)
- Angela C. Stuesse, in Heading North to the South: Mexican Immigrants in Today’s South, ed. M. Odem and E. Lacy (2009)
- Angela C. Stuesse, in Public Anthropology in a Borderless World, ed. Sam Beck and Carl A. Maida (2015)
- Angela C. Stuesse, Scratching Out a Living: Latinos, Race, and Work in the Deep South (2016)
- Donald D. Stull, Eric Schlosser, and Michael J. Broadway, eds., Slaughterhouse Blues: The Meat and Poultry Industry in North America (2003)