Taiseer Al Souki spends most days on his feet at a Foster Farms poultry plant, hefting table-sized plastic brown boxes and feeding them into a machine that cleans them. He plugs his ears to soften the deafening clang of heavy machinery as he cycles through the same motion for hours on end.
At night, after slumping to sleep in exhaustion, the 44-year-old Syrian refugee dreams that he’s at the plant, still hoisting box after box filled with chicken destined for dinner tables across America.
Al Souki does not complain. He fled war-torn Syria and worked backbreaking 12-hour shifts in his home country and Jordan before making his way to the United States. He is grateful for the $10.50 an hour he collects at the poultry plant. “I like work. I need work,” he said in the smattering of English he has picked up. “Without work, not a man.”
Al Souki needs the work—and employers in the meatpacking industry say they need workers like him. Refugees have increasingly become vital workers in an industry with high turnover. And the growing unrest and bloodshed in the Middle East and elsewhere have readily supplied them in places like the Central Valley.
It’s difficult to know exactly how many refugees work in this occupation but roughly one-third of workers in the industry in 2010 were foreign-born, according to a peer-reviewed article in Choices, a publication of the Agricultural and Applied Economics Assn., a nonprofit that serves those who work in agricultural and broadly related fields of applied economics.