Many pork production managers and owners are seeing new faces on their production teams as more Hispanic workers join the roster. According to USDA, Hispanics make up at least 60 percent of the U.S.farm labor force — but that includes all agricultural sectors. Casual estimates for the pork industry are that Hispanics comprise 30 percent of today’s workforce. That percentage could be higher if your operation is located in the southwestern or southeastern portion of the United States.

This can present challenges in terms of language barriers, cultural differences and less familiarity or lower skill levels of new Hispanic employees. Add in the fact that half or more Hispanic workers have little formal education and no housing or transportation, and it’s a full-time job to address employee issues and ensure that your operation runs smoothly.

Many employers do find that Hispanic employees have a strong work ethic and are dependable and dedicated, which make them excellent candidates for pork production jobs. It’s for these reasons that more employers are willing to hire and find ways to accommodate Hispanic workers.

If you have a multicultural workforce, there will be growing pains. “Sometimes, current staff members lack the broad-mindedness necessary to work with people of different cultures and backgrounds,” says Don Tyler, employee management consultant. “We may not be able to avoid having one or two who lack an open mind. However, problems may arise if a majority of the workforce lacks the ability to accept people different from themselves.”

But a multicultural workforce that’s based on teamwork can be more productive than traditional types. It requires managers to motivate all employees to work together as a team and treat each other with respect. If employees behave in a prejudiced or disrespectful manner, the manager or owner must address it immediately and demonstrate to all workers that such actions will not be tolerated.  

It’s Worth the Effort

For any workforce, communication is critical. In supervising Hispanic workers, communication will require significant effort from everyone.

English-speaking supervisors and workers should learn some Spanish, at least common words and phrases. “It’s important that you attempt to speak their language,” says Jorge Estrada, Leadership Coaching International. “Anything you say in Spanish will mean a lot to them; and learn to pronounce their names properly.”

Having a translator available, especially for meetings and training sessions, is another worthwhile investment. “If you can reduce the language barrier you really will have good, dependable workers,” Estrada adds.

He suggests testing for the workers’ English proficiency. Then plan to help Spanish-speaking employees learn English. This is particularly important to “help them communicate more readily in operational and safety issues,” Estrada says. For multicultural crews, safety and production training should always be offered in English and Spanish.

You can establish on-site classes or look for options already offered in your area. Today, a variety of training materials are available in Spanish from the National Pork Boards’ Web site at www.pork.org. (Look under Pork Production Resources.) Increasingly, veterinary clinics, agricultural employee management services and allied industry are offering training assistance for Spanish-speaking workers. (See the Production Solutions column in each issue of Pork magazine.)

Beyond language issues, put the time in to evaluate the workers’ skills, behavior and work ethic. Observe how they are performing. Do they have the potential to learn the language, to take another position or even to supervise others?

Hispanic workers can be reluctant to take supervisory roles, as it conflicts with their desire to maintain equal status among their work group. If a Hispanic worker is promoted to a supervisory position, make sure he or she has all the necessary training and that the whole crew knows why the individual was promoted. Make it clear which workers report to the new supervisor and which ones do not.

Other priorities in meeting Hispanic workers’ needs include basics like transportation. It’s not uncommon for such workers to lack a U.S. driver’s license or a vehicle. You will need to help resolve the transportation issue.

Often, comprehensive pay packages including transportation, housing, uniform, medical and dental needs are required to keep Hispanic workers from leaving to join an employer who provides such basic necessities.

According to 2005 USDA figures, the median wage for non-supervisory hired farm labor was $6.75 per hour. That’s among the lowest wages paid for unskilled occupations. However, with many extras that ag employers often provide, the actual reimbursement value can be much higher.

Family Comes First

Once communication is established and basic needs are being met, understanding the culture is a must. “The main motivation of these workers is to maintain their families that often remain in Mexico,” Estrada says. “Sending money back to relatives is a primary motivation.” This may require employers to help Hispanic workers find locations where money transfers can be made economically.

Because family is such an important consideration, these workers appreciate it when you show an interest. This means inquiring about their families and listening to their stories and concerns.

There are many other cultural differences. For example, Anglo-Americans use communication largely as an exchange of information, whereas Hispanics use communication to build relationships.

“Anglo-Americans are generally uncomfortable around someone who stands very close while talking to them,” Estrada points out.  “Hispanics are more comfortable standing very close while talking, and even touching and hugging as signs of friendship and appreciation.”

Eye contact can be an issue, as Hispanic workers avoid it in certain settings, particularly with managers or owners. If you find that eye contact is difficult, don’t think the person is not paying attention. It’s often how Hispanic workers react to a boss or someone in authority and is usually done out of respect and loyalty.

Greetings and handshakes are important, as they show that you recognize the person’s contributions. “Shake their hands,” Estrada suggests. “It shows your respect, and they really appreciate that.”

Of course, there are a few things to monitor.

The workers may take risks when they shouldn’t; specifically, they may neglect personal-safety equipment. This may look like carelessness, but it’s often related to a determination to complete the job quickly  to try to gain the supervisor’s approval.

In an effort to keep the job, a worker may misrepresent his experience. “Sometimes, a ‘yes’ can mean ‘no’,” according to Estrada. Be sure to observe a new task or supervise through the practice until you are confident that the person can perform it effectively and safely.

Hispanics’ big meal is at lunchtime. “Sometimes they tend to overeat at lunch, which can cause drowsiness in the afternoon and lead to a safety problem,” Estrada warns.

Use simple language when giving directions on how to perform a task. Speak slowly and repeat if necessary. Avoid complex explanations and relate just what the worker needs to know. Once the task is learned and repeatedly performed correctly, you can add more details. “Most of these workers will learn if you train them well,” Estrada says.

Evaluate how each team is performing and pay close attention to how Hispanic workers are fitting in with others. Always promote the team effort.

“One way to encourage teamwork and bridge cultures is with meals or other joint events,” Tyler says.  “Having potluck lunches occasionally where everyone brings a dish allows people to share their favorite foods and learn about each others’ cultures. It’s also important to have families meet each other at company picnics or other company events. Kids interact well, which can bring the adults together more easily.”

Future Unknowns

With increased government efforts to address the nation’s illegal-immigrant issues, future changes in laws and regulations are sure to develop. In October 2007, a federal judge in San Francisco blocked the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s attempt to ask the nation’s employers to fire illegal immigrants.

The judge barred authorities from threatening to prosecute businesses that failed to fire employees whose Social Security numbers don’t match government records. A new DHS proposal is expected this spring.

Meanwhile, some states are tackling the issue on their own. Arizona, for example, passed a law last month similar to the DHS plan.

“Hispanic workers in this country without legal status are very scared about what is going to happen,” Estrada says. “Nobody knows what the future holds in this area; we’ll just have to wait and see.”

With the already tight U.S. labor market, and an even tighter one projected in the years ahead, Hispanic workers can fill an important need within your operation. But always take time to thoroughly check their documentation. DHS offers the E-Verify Web site, which is an Internet-based system that allows participating employers to electronically verify a worker’s eligibility. (See sidebar.)

Employing Hispanic workers takes commitment, but with proper documentation, communication and a cultural awareness among your workforce, Hispanic workers can add an important dimension to your success.


Ensuring Legal Status

The number of unauthorized immigrants continues to rise across the United States. According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Immigration Statistics, there were 11.6 million unauthorized immigrants living in the United States as of January 2006.

Mexico continues to be the leading source, with an annual increase of 315,000 unauthorized immigrants, according to DHS.

So, how can you check the eligibility of new immigrant employees?

DHS, in partnership with the Social Security Administration, offers a way through an Internet-based system called E-Verify. Free and voluntary, E-Verify verifies the workers’ employment eligibility and checks the validity of Social Security numbers. E-Verify also improves the accuracy of wage and tax reporting and helps U.S. employers maintain a legal workforce.

Last year, the system checked more than 3 million new employees. It’s a wise thing to do. In fact, starting March 27, employers who violate immigration laws will face higher fines.

While E-Verify is the best available option for employers today, it’s still not iron clad. Congress has repeatedly acknowledged that rampant document and identity fraud have undermined the system. Illinois, for example, has taken exception to the online verification system and passed legislation banning its use in the state. DHS has filed a law suit against Illinois.

But until a new option surfaces, E-verify is the tool to use. You can check it out at https://www.vis-dhs.com/EmployerRegistration. There you will find registration instructions.

To check an employee’s status, the employer must initiate an inquiry no later than the end of three business days after the new hire’s start date.

Other DHS guidelines include:

  • An employer may initiate the query before a new hire’s start date.
  • An employer may not delay training or the start date based upon a tentative non-confirmation.
  • An employee should not face any adverse employment consequences based upon an employer’s use of E-Verify, unless a query results in a final non-confirmation.
  • An employer cannot expedite or delay the employee’s start date based upon the results of the inquiry, unless the program issues a final non-confirmation. In that case, the employee should not be further employed.
  • Employers must verify employees in a non-discriminatory manner and may not schedule inquiries based upon the new hire’s national origin, race or other characteristics that are prohibited by U.S. law.