Local News

Smithfield Workers, Supporters Gather for Protest

Posted February 6, 2007 6:55 p.m. EST

— Dozens of people wearing matching shirts and holding signs gathered outside the Smithfield Packing Co. plant in Tar Heel on Tuesday to send a message to the company about working conditions, especially for Hispanic workers.

“They are forced to endure arrests, break-up of family, loss of income and are thrown into a state of fear,” said Rev. Nelson Johnson of the Southern Faith Labor & Community and Alliance.

Last month, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arrested 21 workers inside the plant, where about 5,000 workers process about 32,000 hogs daily.

It was part of a national crackdown.

“We have seen this game before and we continue to see it, but we're not going to allow it anymore,” said Mauricio Castro of the North Carolina Latino Coalition.

An ICE spokesperson said the 21 were all arrested on administrative immigration charges, which include being in the country illegally or overstaying a work visa. Hundreds of employees failed to show up for work the day after those arrests.

Last year, about 1,000 workers walked off the job to protest the firing of about 50 immigrant workers.

“The last time that I took time to go and be in support of my brothers and sisters… right after that I was fired from this plant,” Margarita Vasquez said through a translator.

A small group also walked out on Martin Luther King Jr. Day because the plant failed to designate it as a paid holiday. The company said then that workers had not raised the issue far enough in advance for the plant to reschedule work if it were to close that day.

“Without the workers, you couldn't make a profit. That's the whole idea–without us you can't make nothing, so treat us like somebody,” another worker told the group.

A Smithfield official told WRAL that the company wants to maintain a positive environment at Tar Heel and other plants, but the company has to follow the law and cooperate with the Department of Homeland Security in its enforcement of immigration laws.