Refugee Workers and the Automation Threat

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By Joe Guzzardi

Joe is a CAPS Senior Writing Fellow whose commentaries about California's social issues have run in newspapers throughout California and the country for nearly 30 years. Contact Joe at joeguzzardi@capsweb.org, or find him on Twitter @joeguzzardi19.

The writer's views are his own.

August 13, 2017
robot chicken replacing human workers
Robots in, refugee workers out.

Last month, the Los Angeles Times published a front page story about poultry processors’ reliance on refugee labor. From the story: “Immigrants have long been integral to the meatpacking industry, but refugees surfaced as a key labor force starting in 2006, according to experts who study the phenomenon.”

In 2006, then-President George W. Bush authorized Operation Wagon Train, a Department of Homeland Security mission that resulted in the arrest of 1,300 illegal immigrant workers found in six states. Conveniently for meatpackers, the Middle East conflict meant that thousands of refugees would soon come stateside. Since refugees are legally admitted, employers don’t have to worry about hiring aliens, breaking the law, and the potential DHS consequences. By all accounts in the story, the refugees are good workers, although there’s considerable debate about whether, assuming a fair entry level wage, Americans couldn’t be hired. The story quotes a Jordanian refugee as “grateful” for the $10.25 an hour he earns.

As a condition of their admittance, refugees must by law apply for permanent residency within a year. The permanent residency caveat raises the interesting question about what’s ahead for the tens of thousands of mostly unskilled, limited English speaking refugees when poultry processing plants automate.

Automation is high on the industry’s to-do list. Robots exist that speed up processing, enhance profits, and eliminate the chance of costly human injury. Eventually, the refugee workers will be displaced. Many will have few options, and may become dependent on social services.
On October 10, the Supreme Court will hear arguments over President Donald Trump’s proposed travel restrictions from six Middle Eastern nations. Regardless of the outcome, the better solution that would help more refugees is to settle them temporarily near their home countries so they can return safely when the conflicts end.

Read the CAPS press release calling for a more compassionate solution to refugee resettlement here, visit our Facebook page here, and watch our video here.
 
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