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Firsthand look at migrant workers in IndianaFirsthand look at migrant workers in Indiana

Both industry insiders and statistics say migrant workers are important to Hoosier livestock producers.

November 20, 2018

5 Min Read
LIVESTOCK ON THE MOVE: Migrant workers help keep pigs and other livestock moving on many Indiana livestock farms.RGtimeline/Getty Images

By Emily Marsh

Today’s hog industry and migrant workers rely heavily on each other. By providing economic benefits and labor capabilities, migrant workers are continuing to make their way to Indiana farms and businesses each year, as they chase the American dream.

Immigrants are a part of a discussion that has seemed to go on for quite some time. Regardless of where you stand on this issue, migrant workers have made major contributions not only to Indiana’s economy, but also specifically to the hog industry.

According to a study by the National Pork Producers Council, the loss of foreign-born laborers would result in a 3.4% to 5.5% decrease in agricultural jobs filled. Hispanic immigrants in Indiana paid $567.3 million in taxes in 2014, while earning an income of $2.3 billion.

Of the tax dollars collected, $232 million was given to the state. These are just a few numbers that help illustrate the economic power and support that migrant workers contribute to Indiana’s economy.

According to the American Immigration Council, 7.7% of agricultural workers are immigrants. This percentage may not seem large. However, when considering how many people are involved in the agriculture industry in Indiana, that 7.7% contributes a substantial amount.

Need migrant help
“Losing migrant workers would be a huge disadvantage to any farm,” says Mike Stump, transportation manager from Maxwell Farms, an expansion of Goldsboro Milling Co. located in Hagerstown, Ind. Maxwell Farms is part of the meatpacking industry, specifically swine. It employs many migrant workers throughout the year and seasonally.

A misconception is that migrant workers are threatening American jobs. Although in some cases this may be true, the majority of jobs that migrant and seasonal workers have and search for are jobs that domestic residents aren’t interested in or just wouldn’t want to be part of.

“The first year one of our sow farms opened up, we made every effort to hire local residents,” Stump says. “The sow farm takes 24 people, but we turned over 125.”

Stump clarifies that the large turnover was mostly due to locals not interested in the commitment and physical labor the job required. Once they began using migrant workers and training them, Stump says they stuck around for work and worked hard. “They’re reliable,” he says.

Specifically in agriculture, meatpacking and distribution centers may not be the easiest place for anyone to work at because it’s typically considered a “dirty job.”

Although the swine industry is one that continues to grow each year, the ability to actually maintain those workers is a problem that hasn’t yet been solved. Many migrant and seasonal workers come to Indiana for certain seasons that are specifically busy for agriculture in Indiana, but return to states like Texas and Florida for the remainder of the year.

Agencies find workers
“I’m not sure where Indiana would be without migrant and seasonal workers,” says Dana Cowsert, case manager in west-central Indiana for Proteus Inc.

Proteus is a nonprofit agency that operates the National Farmworker Jobs Program, which aids in providing resources for migrant and seasonal farmworkers to receive education and safety training before walking into a local farm or business operation.

There are numerous economic benefits to having organizations such as Proteus doing this work. These organizations receive their funds through federal grants, specifically from the NFJP. This allows these different organizations to provide education and training to migrant workers to ensure that when they arrive on Indiana farms, they have the knowledge and skills necessary to begin work.

“Workers must be documented,” Cowsert says. “We first ask for social security numbers and birth certificates before we begin to offer any of our resources.”

These resources include meeting one-on-one meetings with potential migrant workers, or with their whole family, to discuss opportunities for Proteus to help them pay for education, transportation and housing.

Proteus, along with many other migrant help-focused organizations and agencies, is a part of the Indiana Migrant and Seasonal Farmworker Coalition. The purpose of this coalition is to create a partnership among organizations, their workers and migrant workers to ensure they’re treated correctly and to give them resources necessary to succeed in not only life on the farm, but also education and other workforce environments.

One example of a resource provided through Proteus case managers and program specialists is a safety training course. Once the course is finished and the worker succeeds at completion, his or her name is added to a roster and given to the farmer-employer. That ensures the farmer has documentation of his or her workers, and proof of knowledge of safety skills on the farm.

Low pay, worker shortages
Although some migrant workers, such as ones gaining help from Proteus, can find better-paying jobs, many aren’t receiving appropriate incomes for their labor-intense jobs.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a study found that in 2017, the average income for employees working in animal slaughtering and processing plants was between $10 and $12 an hour. This may not seem like a bad paycheck. However, that’s only $20,000 to $24,000 a year. To be able to own a home, raise a family or simply live on your own on this income isn’t an easy task.

The U.S. economy is continuously fluctuating. To say these incomes are able to sustain a migrant or domestic family’s lifestyle isn’t always true. But for now, these numbers are low for any U.S. inhabitant. Because of this fact, there’s a decrease in migrant workers each year, according to Cowsert.

“Several of our workers get up each morning to load hogs, and then head right to school,” she says.

“Although they’re able to get great help in our state, they continue to return to where they feel most comfortable, like in states such as Texas and Florida. That’s where most of our migrant and seasonal workers are from,” she adds.

Seeing the economic benefits that migrant and seasonal workers bring to our state, it would be a substantial loss to have a continuation of decreasing migrants in meatpacking, distribution and other aspects of the swine industry.

Work efforts, economic power and the desire to succeed are just a few of the characteristics that these migrant workers bring to the state of Indiana’s hog industry. Migrant workers are extremely impactful economically and a contributor that will continue to influence agriculture, experts conclude.

Marsh is a senior in the Purdue University ag communication program. She writes from West Lafayette, Ind.

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