Regardless of one’s stance on whether restricting immigration helps or hurts the cause of fighting terrorism, there is another, equally troubling, consequence to policies aimed at dialing back the flow of both refugees and immigrants to the United States.
As a recent Bloomberg report phrases it, “For a glimpse at how Donald Trump’s ‘America first’ approach to immigrants may affect the meat industry in the U.S., look no further than across the northern border to Canada.”
That’s because in 2014, conservative former Prime Minister Stephen Harper tightened restrictions on foreign workers in an effort, it was said, to force employers to hire more Canadians. Many undoubtedly did, but in the meatpacking and processing industry, companies all across Canada complained that the move “compounded an ongoing labor shortage.”
The Ottawa-based Canadian Meat Council estimated that the Canadian meat industry now has some 1,650 vacancies at 19 mostly rural packing plants, about 9% of total employment at those facilities, according to Bloomberg.
Like its American counterpart, the Canadian meat industry is dependent on foreign labor, to the point that the article quoted a source stating that Maple Leaf Foods Inc. announced last year it was seeking to hire Syrian refugees to fill job shortages.
“We’ll take anybody who is willing to work,” Ron Davidson, Canadian Meat Council director of government and media relations, told Bloomberg. The council represents some 50 major meat processors, including Maple Leaf, Olymel SEC and the Canadian units of Cargill Inc. and JBS SA. “We’re being suffocated,” Davidson said. “If you can’t get workers at the front end of the system, everybody pays the price.”
The immigrations restrictions proposed by the Trump administration to limit the entry of foreign workers might prove to be just as disruptive to U.S. meat and poultry companies. According to 2015 data from the U.S. Census Bureau, immigrant workers account for 35% of the 441,000 meatpacking and processing jobs.
In certain states, the percentages are even more dramatic.
David Swenson, an economist at Iowa State University, was quoted in the article as stating that an estimated 75% of the workforce at the pork processing plants in Iowa are immigrants, primarily from Mexico.
Are “real Americans” likely to take those jobs if the entry of Mexican immigrants is severely restricted?
Randy Capps, director of research for U.S. programs at the Migration Policy Institute, told Bloomberg that meat and poultry companies are particularly vulnerable to further restrictions on the availability of low-skilled labor. “It is one of the industries that stands the most to lose,” he said.
Making the Case
But we don’t need researchers or policy wonks to spell it out.
David MacLennan, Cargill’s chairman and CEO, argued quite convincingly for maintaining a sensible immigration policy in an opinion piece published earlier this month on Huffington Post.
“Staying competitive in business means economic growth and jobs,” MacLennan wrote. “In a world where new markets are opening every day and new competitors are changing the game, companies need to be globally connected and deploy new products and breakthrough innovation. In order to do that, we need smart, inclusive policies on trade and immigration.
“Cargill . . . employ[s] 150,000 people around the world. In order to keep all these people working — and let’s not forget, to improve global food security and nutrition — we absolutely rely on trade.
“We are a U.S.-based company, but we know that 96% of the world’s consumers live outside of the U.S. We can’t afford to wall ourselves off from these markets.”
Not sure if MacLennan deliberately or inadvertently referenced “walling off” the United States, but his point is clear.
Without an inflow of immigrant labor, one of the nation’s basic industries, representing hundreds of thousands of jobs and generating tens of billions of dollars in economic activity, will be very negatively impacted.
The debate over whether the presence of immigrants is a threat to national security will likely continue to be vociferous.
But there can be no doubt that their absence is a bona fide threat to economic security for the meat and poultry industries.
The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.