Are Meat And Dairy Doomed Without Immigrant Labor?
In August 2019, Immigration and Customs Enforcement raided poultry processing plants in Mississippi owned by Koch Foods, in which 680 workers were detained on suspicion of being in the country illegally.
This case is not exceptional. Wherever you find industries with less desirable work in the U.S., you’ll often find immigrant workers. It is therefore hardly surprising that the meat and dairy industries feature some of the highest shares of non-U.S. workers. These industries take advantage of the minor legal protections offered to immigrants to undermine their pay and working conditions. In other words: meat and dairy industries exploit immigrants.
Ironically, both industries also hinge on them. Meatpackers, butchers, animal caretakers, truck drivers — these vacancies couldn’t be staffed to capacity without immigrant workers. Indeed, foreign-born workers have become integral parts of U.S. meat and dairy production. This report explores the use of immigrant labor by the meat and dairy sectors.
Following the COVID-19 pandemic, more people in the U.S. have been looking to spend money on goods and services. In theory, U.S. industries should be experiencing a significant rebound from the production bottlenecks and slowdowns of 2020. But instead, disrupted supply chains and other geopolitical events have limited the ability of suppliers to meet consumers’ demands. On top of this, U.S. industries are currently plagued by a national labor shortage, which is the result of two factors: an increase in retirements as the baby boom generation reaches retirement age, and lower labor participation rates since the pandemic.
Meat and dairy industries are particularly affected by this dilemma. Even before the pandemic, they’ve been struggling to hire enough workers, but due to the current labor crisis their situation has come to a head. From 2019 through 2021, the number of unique online job postings for meat and dairy workers increased by 64% nationwide. To attract more workers, meat and dairy employers were forced to pay higher wages. This has, in return, increased their production costs even more. In just three years, the median advertised online wage for workers in the meat and dairy industries has risen by 34%, from $14.95 to $20.00 per hour. By comparison, the national median advertised online salary for all workers increased by just 7% within the same period, rising from $20.03 to $21.51 per hour.
These higher costs have forced some farmers and meatpacking plants to close, decreasing the supply of meat and dairy products and leading to yet higher prices due to increased demand. According to the USDA, average meat prices were 8% higher in 2021 than in 2020. For context, the 20-year historical level of retail meat price inflation is 3.2% per year — meaning the 2021 increase was almost 2.5 times above average.
To mitigate expenses, meat and dairy industries increasingly use H-2A and H-2B visas, which allow employers to hire foreign workers for seasonal labor. Both industries rely heavily on these programs to fill jobs they’re unable to fill with U.S.-born workers. In 2021, meat and dairy employers requested a combined total of 34,245 H-2A and H-2B workers. Of those, the U.S. Department of Labor certified 32,071 workers. More than 94% of those temporary workers were on H-2A visas, which are typically used to hire agricultural workers for tending the animals or maintaining the machinery and buildings on a farm. The H-2B visa, for non-agricultural workers, is mostly requested by meatpacking plants. By supplying seasonal immigrant workers, these visas provide a temporary solution for meat and dairy industries. However, as animal agriculture requires year-round help, they do not ultimately meet the needs of these non-seasonal industries.
Dairy farms, for example, rely heavily on the immigrant workforce to keep their operations running. Because both visa programs fail to fully cover their demand for workers, these operations often hire undocumented laborers. A study from 2017 found that 51% of dairy workers are of immigrant origin. That’s a significantly higher percentage than the national share of non-U.S. workers for all industries combined, which is 17%. Being an undocumented laborer means working without legal protections, meaning these workers are more vulnerable to exploitation.
The same study found that retail milk prices would nearly double, and the dairy industry would face a total output loss of $31 billion, if farmers lost immigrant workers. Furthermore, the annual milk production would lower by 48 billion pounds – that’s roughly a 25% decrease compared to the total milk output in 2016. A loss of immigrant workforce would seriously set back dairy production, but it’s unlikely that it would threaten the existence of the entire industry. Oversized producers like Nestlé, Saputo, or Danone can survive such a crisis. It would be smaller, family-owned operations that would have to fear their existence.
The same applies to the current labor shortage: smaller businesses are most affected. In 2011, the USDA registered 51,291 dairy herds. A decade later, it reported 29,858 – a 42% drop-off. But while the number of dairy herds has dramatically decreased, the U.S. population of dairy cows has remained relatively stable. Consequently, the dairy industry, like other agricultural industries, is moving toward larger and fewer operations. While this development is great for a handful of outsized players, it’s devastating for rural communities and, above all, for the confined animals who suffer in factory farming systems. The larger the operation, the more likely it is that animals must endure higher levels of anxiety, pain, and stress.
To cut a long story short: Animal agriculture is currently in trouble — as more workers reach retirement age, meat and dairy employers are increasingly hard-pressed to find enough workers. And as there simply are not enough U.S.-born workers to mitigate this labor shortage, animal agriculture increasingly relies on immigrant workers. However, the report argues that the U.S. senate is already considering legislation that would reform the visa program for temporary agricultural workers, making it easier for meat and dairy to find staff. Moving forward, it will be more important than ever to include labor rights issues in animal advocacy campaigns.
The situation offers another opportunity for animal advocacy. Due to the increased costs, many employers are currently questioning if their businesses are still profitable. In other words, some farmers may be more willing to switch the course of their operations. There are existing programs — such as the Transfarmation Project — that successfully help farmers shift from animal agriculture to plant-based production. As no one knows how long the current labor shortage and price increases will last, now is the time to open discussions and build bridges with farmers.