Minnesota Latinos in the Rural Sector
Although Latinos have always had a presence in rural Minnesota, it is only in the past two decades that they have filled positions in the rural industry. This is due to major shifts in Minnesota’s economy in general and in the state’s rural economy in particular. Rural Minnesota has seen a decline in agriculture and high-wage manufacturing jobs, and an increase in service and low-wage industrial jobs. Many of the large farms that used to dominate the landscape of southwestern Minnesota have disappeared, and the remaining industrial jobs have become less desirable because of their low-wages and lack of benefits. As a result many local residents of the region have left.
Paralleling this out-migration, food processing companies have moved into the area in an attempt to lower their production costs. They are initially attracted by the weak labor unions and accompanying low wages of rural areas. The ruraliza-tion of the industry has been further encouraged by tax breaks given by small towns to food processing companies to locate there. As a result of these incentives Minnesota has become one of the nation’s leaders in processing foods such as turkey and sweet pea. Farmland Foods, Midwest Foods, Hormel, Jennie-O, Schwan, Swift and Company, Monfort Pork, and Campbell Soup either have headquarters or production hubs in rural Minnesota.
With the relocation of food processing factories, new jobs were created in rural Minnesota. Yet, towns had difficulty filling these jobs because they are low paying and unappealing, and because they often entail dangerous working conditions. As a result, in the 1980s food processing companies began to recruit migrants to fill their demand for workers. Little knowledge of English is necessary to work in food processing factories, which makes the jobs attractive to the poorest and least educated Latinos.
Besides participating in Minnesota’s rural food processing industry, Latinos continue to work on the farms. A report by the Wilder Research Center estimated that in 2003 there were between 1,200 and 10,000 migrant farmworkers in Minnesota.10 These numbers only include those who are actually working in the fields that is, they exclude family members accompanying the workers.
As was the case in the early 1900s, when Mexicans and Tejanos first came to Minnesota to work in the sugar beet fields, life for contemporary migrant farmworkers is difficult, and exploitation is common. Workers are hard pressed to meet even their most basic needs. Housing is a good example. Few employers provide housing for their migrant workers. In 2002 a study of migrant housing in southern Minnesota by the Hispanic Advocacy and Community Empowerment through Research
(HACER), at the University of Minnesota, found that housing is such a great problem that some migrants resort to living in their cars.11 When the option is available, workers commonly choose to live in employer-provided barracks, which are essentially mobile trailers. Still, living conditions in these trailers are far from ideal. Up to 15 workers live in a single gender-segregated trailer, many of which do not have bathrooms. Other housing options include mobile homes or hotels. Migrant living conditions are substandard across the board. In addition, Latinos report persistent discrimination when trying to find housing on the private market.
Many migrant farmworkers must piece together work to make ends meet. This means that they often work in both agriculture and industry. Most have to commute to the workplace. Because employers do not provide transportation, workers must have access to a car. HACER reports that the average commute by workers in southern Minnesota is six miles, and that this distance between home and work adds to the costs and challenges of migrant life.
As a result of the massive influx of Latino workers into the poultry, meat, and food processing industries, scholars and policy makers have been paying the industry much attention.12 Researchers have found that dangerous working conditions, low pay, and labor abuse are common among migrant workers in Minnesota. Research also reveals that Latino workers especially those who move to small towns that don’t have a history of non-European migration commonly face discrimination that permeates their work and social lives.