The impact the economic crisis has had on the refugee community in central Minnesota is significant. The major layoffs at the end of 2008 resulted in a number of refugees that are still out of work. After their employment benefits expired many looked for available jobs in small towns across the region and in neighboring states.
In this region, new Somali refugees initially worked in the meat-packing industry because those jobs did not require any experience.
The meat and poultry processing companies began hiring through temporary agencies which drastically eroded wages for workers, lowering the standard hourly rate by at least two dollars.
At the same time the process of getting work through the agencies became cumbersome. The period to be employed with a temporary agency can drag on for as long as a year depending on the company. During this period, workers are forced to re-apply every ninety days to remain in the system and eligible to work at one of the plants.
In this way, the food companies get cheaper labor longer while driving down the earnings of refugees who are desperate to support their families.
To make matters worse, injuries are common in the plants and refugee workers have little control over the cost and quality of the health care they receive.
The cost of health coverage has steadily risen for their families and the coverage they receive does not cover even a quarter of their health expenses. And when a worker is injured in the plant they rarely are able to choose the doctor who will treat them.
A lack of proper training contributes to the dangerous injuries many workers endure. The number of injured workers increases daily. At the same time, not receiving adequate treatment from their employers and the benefits necessary to help them heal compounds the difficulties faced by many refugee families.
The work in these plants requires intense labor and the poor treatment inflicted on workers is often beyond comprehension.
In many ways the exploitation of workers by meat and poultry companies is intentional. And is the reason they now operate in rural America, where refugees and other workers are isolated from supportive communities.