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Coronavirus Plagues Refugees From Myanmar Who Say Meatpacking Jobs Are Their 'Only Option'

In this file photo, a worker at a meat processing plant stands side by side other workers.
Courtesy of Oxfam America / file
A worker at a meat processing plant stands side by side other workers.

Meatpacking plants continue to be a driving factor in coronavirus outbreaks across rural America. In Iowa, refugees from Myanmar are among the hardest-hit, as nearly the entire community works in the plants. Many feel they don’t have options, other than to work in facilities where social distancing is extremely difficult.

According to the grassroots refugee organization EMBARC, Iowa is home to some 10,000 refugees from Myanmar, also known as Burma. Many are Christians who fled ethnic violence and the world’s longest running civil war.

Advocates say the vast majority work at the state’s meatpacking plants, where they can make better than minimum wages without having to know English.

But because of that, the entire community is disproportionately at risk for the coronavirus. One advocacy group says all of its clients from Myanmar have had the virus, or been exposed to it.

"Of course in the beginning we [were] really scare[d] and panic[ked] and when they receive[d] a positive so they think that they're going to die," said Pastor Benjamin Sang Bawi of Carson Chin Baptist Church in Columbus Junction.

In a decade, the ethnic Chin community there has grown to nearly 20 percent of the population in the southeast Iowa town of about 2,300.

It’s also home to a Tyson meatpacking plant, which attracted the refugee families. At least 221 workers there have tested positive, and two died.

If they don't go to work, how they will survive? That is a big question. And of course every, every family [is] concerned about that. - Pastor Benjamin Sang Bawi, Carson Chin Baptist Church

Sang Bawi says his community knows the risks of the plants, but there’s virtually no other work in town.

"If they don't go to work, how they will survive? That is a big question," he said. "And of course every, every family [is] concerned about that."

Sang Bawi has become something of a one-person social service agency during the pandemic. He’s counseled people over the phone as they self-isolated, interpreted their doctor’s appointments and delivered food to their doorsteps.

He says the virus has been traumatizing for children too, including his own, ages 7 and 10.

"We ask them to pray at the dining table for food, they only know how to pray for the COVID-19 and all they keep on saying, saying 'let’s go away'," he said.

Covid has left refugees even more vulnerable than before, facing barriers to transportation, social services and even basic information.

On top of barriers to resettlement, some refugees from Myanmar also say they are facing discrimination and racial hostility during the pandemic, an experience people of Asian ancestry across the country have been subject to.

One refugee advocate told IPR the racist sentiment some Iowans are targeting at Asian Americans is that "we are the virus."

Families that are self-isolating in their homes need for food delivery. Not a phone number to the food pantry. They need food delivered to their door. And we are doing that. - Abigail Sui, EMBARC

Abigail Sui of the refugee advocay group EMBARC, says adjusting to life in the U.S. is already a huge challenge for families who have spent years in refugee camps.

"Many of our families do not have computer[s] and access to internet or know how to use [a] computer or technology. So we need a system to accommodate immigrant and refugee communities," Sui said at a public meeting in Black Hawk County in May.

According to the group, refugees from Myanmar in Iowa speak 27 languages and dialects. Lack of English proficiency is a major challenge. As is a lack of interpreters.

Sui urged local officials in Waterloo to do more to directly support the large refugee community there.

"Families that are self-isolating in their homes need for food delivery. Not a phone number to the food pantry. They need food delivered to their door," she told them. "And we are doing that."

One person doing that work is Victoria Wah, an EMBARC staffer and a refugee from the Karen ethnic group.

She also helps staff a multilingual phone line for refugees, which is coordinated by EMBARC and some thirty other refugee advocacy groups and community organizations. Helpline workers answer questions on how to file for unemployment, how to call in sick and when to dial 911.

While Wah counsels others on the importance of social distancing, the isolation of quarantine is wearing her down, too. She says her parents and five of her siblings are still in a refugee camp in Thailand, waiting for the chance to emigrate.

"I'm hoping that they will come here soon," she said. "And I'm hoping that covid will like [be] over soon."

The meat packing plants is like only the option for people from my community. I don't know about like other factories where they can like work. - Victoria Wah, EMBARC

Coronavirus cases are increasing as much of the country reopens and Iowa has not been insluated from the resurgence. According to a New York Times analysis, Buena Vista County now has the second highest number of recent cases per person in the country, following an outbreak at a meatpacking plant. 

Plants say they are providing personal protective gear, workstation barriers, and offering testing to employees, and have taken steps to stagger shifts and distance workers.

Still, many are pushing production levels back up to full capacity and reverting to stricter attendance policies. While companies have said having covid symptoms is still an excusable absence, fear of getting the virus on the job may not be.

"Team members who have symptoms of the virus or have tested positive will continue to be excluded from the attendance policy and asked to stay home. They will also continue to qualify for short-term disability coverage, which we have increased to 90% of normal pay until June 30, 2020, so they can continue to be paid while they’re sick," said Tyson spokesperson Liz Croston in a written statement.

Still, refugees keep turning to the facilities for work. Wah says she doesn’t know of other jobs for her community.

"The meat packing plants is like only the option for people from my community," Wah said. "I don’t know about like other factories where they can like work."

Her brother recently reunited with her in Waterloo. But like thousands before him, he’ll have few options other than processing pigs in a nearby meatpacking plant.