By Charles Abbott
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Foreign workers could gain visas for year-round work in U.S. meat processing plants under a proposal by the meat industry and the meatpackers union for immigration reform designed to create a steady supply of workers for slaughterhouses.
The proposal, expected to be part of the Senate immigration bill, would help assure a stable workforce, said industry and union officials on Wednesday. The Senate Judiciary Committee was to begin debate on the bill on Thursday.
There was no immediate estimate of how many jobs might be filled by foreign workers. Around 480,000 people work at 6,300 meat and poultry plants nationwide, according to a trade group.
Over the past couple of decades, meat packers have moved plants away from cities such as Chicago, and have drawn foreign-born workers, especially Hispanics, to rural communities. Industry officials say it is hard to recruit enough workers. They would prefer three-year visas that can be renewed.
"These are not seasonal jobs. Many of these jobs take a lot of training to do the job properly," said Barry Carpenter of the Food Manufacturers Immigration Coalition of livestock producers and processors. "There's a big safety-training factor as well."
The initial version of the Senate immigration bill included a provision for meatpacking and seafood workers. The language was revised in recent days but would remain part of the bill, said Carpenter.
Jill Cashen of the United Food and Commercial Workers said the union and industry "have some over-lapping goals," especially on workplace stability, that led to the alliance on immigration reform. A large portion of beef and pork plants are unionized while poultry plants, concentrated in the southern United States, often are not.
In a letter to the eight senators who took the lead on immigration reform, the industry and union asked for more flexibility in verifying that applicants can work legally. The letter suggested deletion of a special allocation of visas proposed for meat and seafood workers.
The largest U.S. meat companies are Tyson Foods, JBS and Cargill.
(Reporting By Charles Abbott; editing by Ros Krasny)