News Opinion

Gas Leak In Gainesville

by Skye Passmore

On January 28th this year six workers were killed and many others were hospitalized in a nitrogen gas leak at a poultry plant in Gainesville, GA. While Foundation Food Group has been a major opportunity for employment for the Hispanic community in Gainesville, laborers here continue to face several obstacles from ignored workplace safety regulations, disease, intimidation, exploitation, and – for those who are undocumented – the threat of deportation.

A Brief History of Little Mexico

Since the 1990s the United States has been experiencing a boom in immigration for Latin American countries and one of those places that have become popular for Latinos to settle down is Gainesville, GA. In Gainesville if one takes a drive down Atlanta Highway they’ll be driving by car dealerships, restaurants, food markets, laundromats, churches, and other businesses and organizations owned, operated and patronized by the ever growing Hispanic community.  This area has affectionately been deemed “Little Mexico” by Gainesville locals. And yet, while the non-Hispanic population celebrates the culture and community contributions of their neighbors, it hasn’t been smooth sailing for the Hispanic community. According to the La Alianza / Hispanic Alliance Georgia, while 41.3% of Gainesville residents today identify as Latino they are currently the largest minority demographic living in poverty.

One reason that immigrants have flocked to Gainesville is that it is the self-proclaimed “Poultry Capital of the World.” That’s right, chicken is the state of Georgia’s number one agricultural product and that has to do with the Gainesville businessman Jesse Jewell, who during the Great Depression started Georgia’s chicken industry through vertical integration (that is, the monopolizing all phases of business from farming to distribution). This process of business at the time made Gainesville the largest producer of poultry products in the world. And for many who immigrate here from south of the US, poultry plants and other manual labor occupations have provided employment opportunities.

Soon those who immigrated were able to build savings, establish roots in town, and help relatives and friends still in the process of immigrating establish better lives for themselves. In Gainesville we see a community of people who have had to struggle through common adversities and continue to provide support for one another and lift each other up. Hence, “Little Mexico.”

Fear of Deportation

The COVID-19 pandemic has launched the country into a conversation about what it means to be an essential worker and how undervalued they are in capitalist society. The conversation becomes more difficult for Hispanic workers – a significant portion of who are undocumented and are vulnerable to further exploitation by their employers because they are under constant threat of deportation.  And the fact that the Joe Biden administration, despite promises to reform the immigration process and reign in ICE, has doubled down on several Trump-era immigration policies does nothing to lessen that fear. Those policies include opening up new migrant child facilities (that continue to maintain horrid conditions) and denying asylum rights. In fact, according to United We Dream at the time of this article’s writing, in only 5 months Biden has overseen almost 500,000 deportations, already much more than the deportation records of entire fiscal years under the Trump administration.  After a court defeat of Biden’s proposed 100-day ban on deportations, it is unclear whether the pause is something that his administration will continue to pursue.

The challenges of this time continue to bleed into daily life decisions of undocumented workers. One thing you will notice about Gainesville is that there is a thriving Latino taxi cab industry. A major reason for this is because for undocumented workers, it is safer to take a taxi rather than drive and risk being pulled over by a police officer. Undocumented workers also often lack access to healthcare, which means that they often end up not going to the doctor for minor symptoms, something that has been an even more dangerous risk during the pandemic which has since claimed the lives of hundreds of the nation’s poultry plant employees. And in workplaces, like at Foundation Food Group, undocumented workers are often crowded in close quarters, subject to unsafe conditions, and have little agency in speaking up or unionizing for fear of retaliation.

The Gas Leak

Liquid nitrogen, when leaked into the air, rapidly transforms into a gas that can asphyxiate anyone who breathes it in. There have been ongoing investigations by numerous agencies into the leak at Foundation Food Group.

Foundation Food Group over the past few years has been the subject of several fines from OSHA and workplace injuries have happened in the past, including workers losing fingers while operating machinery. Poultry plant work already comes with numerous hazards for laborers who stand on their feet for long hours in close to freezing temperatures throughout the day doing work that can feel monotonous. In light of the gas leak, the Latino labor rights group Las Familias Unidas filed a complaint with OSHA in March.

Yet while the results of the OSHA investigation have not been released publically yet, soon after the leak in January other organizations found several workplace safety violations and concerns. The U.S. Chemical Safety Board reported that operational issues with the conveyor belt may have caused the leak. According to the Gainesville Times, the Hall County Fire Marshal’s Office found that exits were blocks by machinery and other objects, unrepaired emergency lights, and exit signs that were not illuminated.

According to Las Familias Unidas, Foundation Food Group has since been negligent in several areas related to employee wellbeing. The burden has fallen onto their advocacy group to schedule healthcare appointments and provide legal and financial help to workers affected.

And again, for undocumented workers, there have been other challenges when speaking with investigators.  There has been fear of retaliation by Foundation Food Group and a fear that government agencies will work with ICE to probe into the immigration status of employees. That fear is not unfounded, considering other southeastern poultry plants in the past few years have been subject to ICE raids.

Moving Forward

Despite challenges that poultry plant workers face, there are also new challenges for the industry as a whole, many of which have come to light because of the pandemic.

For one, like many industries currently, there is a major labor shortage for poultry plants. In Georgia, Governor Brian Kemp has chosen to address the shortage by recently ended the $300 weekly unemployment supplements in an effort to force workers back into low-paying jobs.

However, not only is there a labor shortage, but the price of meat continues to rise as production slows from new safety regulations. The supply chain to restaurants and grocery stores has been slightly disrupted as businesses have to pay more for their chicken. Yet despite the rising price of poultry products, profits for poultry producers continue to decline.

This is all to say that while poultry plant employees like the ones in Gainesville continue to face adversity, there is always potential to collectively organize. Poultry capitalists are currently in the position of need, and this pandemic has shown the country just how essential the poultry proletariat is.