Friends of Refugees

A U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program Watchdog Group

Waterloo, Iowa site of secondary migration as refugees from Burma seek meat-packing jobs

Posted by Christopher Coen on June 11, 2011

Iowa has become a secondary migration site for about 1000 refugees from Burma, according to John Wilken, who heads the Iowa Bureau of Refugee Services, in a quote to the WCF Courier in Waterloo, Iowa. Secondary migrants are arriving largely in Waterloo, Columbus Junction and Storm Lake, and some may also be coming to Marshalltown and Perry. For the most part they are migrating to Iowa for meatpacking jobs.

…Since the 1990s, thousands of ethnic minorities and political dissidents have fled Myanmar, as Burma is called by its ruling military government.

[There are] about 150 Burmese refugees employed at the Waterloo Tyson plant. The first 40 Burmese employees arrived from…Rockford, Ill., in May last year. Tyson officials said another 100 likely will be hired by the end of the year.

“We knew the refugees were there and needed jobs, and we had these jobs to fill,” said Teri Wray, community liaison for the Tyson’s Waterloo plant.

The plant had added jobs faster than the local pool of applicants was providing candidates, said Worth Sparkman, public relations manager of Tyson Foods.

“More than anything, it seemed to be a good fit,” Sparkman said.

Tyson has worked with the U.S. State Department to bring refugees to Waterloo from…Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Texas. Their resettlement here is called secondary migration.

“Based on the anecdotal information I’ve heard, I’d say there are 1,000 secondary migrants” from Burma in Iowa, said John Wilken, who heads the Iowa Bureau of Refugee Services. Along with Waterloo, secondary migrants are arriving largely in Columbus Junction and Storm Lake. He said some may also be coming to Marshalltown and Perry. Generally, they are being drawn to Iowa by jobs at meat packing plants.

Burmese refugees have been directly resettled into the Des Moines metro area since 2007, with 128 refugees arriving the first year.

“In that year, there were a total of 435 refugees that were settled into Iowa,” Wilken said.

“They were the largest single group coming into Iowa.”

Since then, “they have been the largest planned resettlement coming into Iowa.” A total of 825 Burmese refugees have been resettled in the state, although some have since moved. The numbers are down recently because in January 2010, Lutheran Services of Iowa stopped resettling refugees, Wilken said.

In the Des Moines area, Catholic Charities plans to resettle 120 Burmese per year, with a focus on relatives of those already here. The U.S. Committee on Immigrants and Refugees is targeting 350 Burmese resettlements in the Des Moines area next year. The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Dubuque’s Cedar Rapids office plans to resettle a small number of Burmese next year.

Wilken’s agency resettled refugees until a year ago, but the State Department determined the bureau did not meet the criteria of a national office, so it had to stop. The bureau now focuses on job placement for the refugees, mostly in the Des Moines area.

“Right now, there’s no agency that has stated they’re going to open up a resettlement office in Waterloo,” Wilken noted.

Since there is no resettlement agency in Waterloo, many of the Burmese Tyson workers here are still waiting for green cards and for their families to join them… Read more here

Now I know that new Americans desperately need jobs, but I still councel them to stay away from meatpacking due to the deplorable safety record in the industry. There is chronic underreporting of injuries, according to an article in The Nation. An article in Mother Jones also reported that Bureau of Labor Statistics show that meatpacking is the nation’s most dangerous occupation.

2 Responses to “Waterloo, Iowa site of secondary migration as refugees from Burma seek meat-packing jobs”

  1. Mary said

    Do you know what the hourly wage is in the plants?

  2. The US Dept. of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics shows in 2010 a mean wage of $11.60/hr for animal slaughtering and processing.

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