Tyson Foods Inc. has announced plans to employ Burmese refugees at the company’s chicken processing complex in Wilkesboro.

Tyson officials shared the plans with about 30 local businesses, public schools, town and county government and law enforcement leaders and others during a meeting Tuesday at the Tyson technical services building on N.C. 268 West in Wilkesboro.

The refugees are originally from Myanmar, a country bordered by China, Thailand, India, Laos and Bangladesh in southeastern Asia, and now live in the United States.

About 250 over two years

Worth Sparkman, Tyson public relations manager, said later that the company anticipated hiring about 250 refugees over the next two years to work at the processing complex in Wilkesboro.

Sparkman said Tyson wanted to expand its pool of potential employees for the Wilkesboro processing complex due to the complex’s aging workforce, help lower the complex’s employee turnover rate and other factors.

According to people at the meeting Tuesday, a Tyson official said then that about 30 percent of about 2,500 people working at the Tyson complex are over age 50 and about 67 percent live in Wilkes.

“While most of the people we hire at our Wilkesboro facility apply locally, we sometimes need to supplement the local applicant flow with available candidates from outside the immediate area. It’s part of an effort to keep our plant fully staffed and operating at its maximum,” said Sparkman.

He noted the success of efforts to bolster Tyson’s labor pool for its poultry, beef and pork processing plants elsewhere in the nation by working with nonprofit refugee resettlement agencies, but he emphasized that Tyson doesn’t target specific groups of people and will hire anyone eligible.

Sparkman said Tyson’s total direct economic impact in Wilkes is about $210.9 million and with multipliers this could be as high as $885 million. The company has an annual payroll of about $84 million in Wilkes. Average pay at the processing complex is about $11 per hour.

People who attended the meeting, which wasn’t announced to the public or media, said Tyson officials indicated that it was hard to predict how many Burmese refugees might come to Wilkes to work at the Tyson complex and when.

Local officials comment

They said Tyson officials told them the newcomers would come as families and would contribute to the local economy with the money they spend here, including for housing. Refugees start paying U.S. and state taxes when they become employed.

People who attended the meeting said Tyson officials also talked about the responsibility of Christians to reach out and help the refugees and about the tradition of coming to America for a better life.

Keith Elmore, chairman of the Wilkes County commissioners, attended the meeting and said Thursday that it’s important to think about Tyson’s announcement in terms of the importance of the company to Wilkes as the county’s largest employer and second largest taxpayer. Duke Energy is the largest taxpayer in Wilkes.

Other local government officials shared similar comments in interviews, saying Tyson officials are doing what they feel is necessary to maintain profitability of the processing complex in Wilkesboro and that this indicated the company’s commitment to maintaining its strong presence in Wilkes.

Some local officials said Tyson wasn’t the only company in Wilkes with problems finding and keeping employees. They said these problems partly resulted from people choosing to receive unemployment benefits rather than work.

The processing complex includes the Fresh Plant, which produces fresh chicken for retail grocery, club stores and fast food chains, and the Food Service Plant, which produces fully cooked, fresh and individually frozen chicken for schools and institutions. The complex also includes the Cooked Products Plant, closed in 2008 due to lack of demand for Tyson’s refrigerated, oven roasted chicken.

Dr. Marty Hemric, Wilkes school superintendent, attended the meeting and said state funding for the school system’s English as a second language program would increase if the number of students who don’t speak English increased.

Wilkes Sheriff Chris Shew also attended the meeting and said his biggest concern was finding interpreters for his department’s interactions with the refugees. “My concern is being able to bridge the communication gap,” he said.

Wilkes County Manager John Yates, Wilkes Department of Social Services Director Bill Sebastian, Wilkesboro Town Manager Ken Noland and other local officials are calling officials in communities elsewhere in the country who have experienced an influx of refugees for insight on what to expect here.

Involvement of churches

The Rev. Steve Gouge, director of missions of the Brushy Mountain Baptist Association, said Tyson officials contacted and met with him Thursday to discuss their interest in having the association’s churches interact with the refugees.

“They asked us to be involved in their spiritual lives and provide them with places to worship and foster their relationship with Christ,” said Gouge. He added, “That is what we are all about.”

Gouge said he was impressed with the plans shared by Tyson officials and said he was told the company carried out similar efforts in connection with its processing plant in Center, Texas, and with plants in Arkansas and Missouri.

“My understanding is that they don’t know how many people will come and just when,” he said.

Baptists have the largest presence in Myanmar due to Southern Baptist missionaries, but the presence of Christianity varies among different Burmese ethnic groups.

According to the multiple sources online, about 70 percent of Karen are Buddhist, Buddhist-animist, or animist (spirit worshipers) and about 30 percent are Christian.

Tyson Foods, Pilgrim’s Pride and other large food processors in the U.S. increasingly are turning to refugees from Myanmar, Sudan, Somalia and other countries for a more stable workforce. Tyson Foods processing complexes in Center, Texas; Shelbyville, Tenn., Waterloo, Iowa; and elsewhere each employ hundreds of resettled refugees.

World Relief assists

Tyson and other companies find many of these workers with assistance of nonprofit agencies that have contracts with the U.S. State Department to help refugees in the United States become resettled and self-sufficient.

Tyson is working with Baltimore, Md.-based World Relief, a faith-based, humanitarian aid agency with offices in High Point and Durham, to find Burmese workers for the Tyson plant in Wilkesboro.

“Our role as a resettlement agency is to help find homes for them (refugees), help them get their Social Security cards” and address other basic needs, said Andrew Timbie, manager of the World Relief office in High Point.

“We have a team working with employers to hire them in mass. Our goal is to get them employed and to set them up for self-sufficiency.”

Timbie said World Relief staff work with leaders of refugee populations to get the word out about available jobs, such as at the Tyson complex in Wilkesboro.

Karen ethnic group

He said the refugees involved with World Relief’s efforts involving the Tyson processing complex in Wilkesboro are part of a Burmese ethnic group called Karen.

According to the World Relief website, many of the Karen fled Burma due to religious and ethnic persecution by the government.

The website said the Karen tribe was the first among the Burmese to convert to Christianity and its people are often sent to other tribes as Christian missionaries.

The nuclear family is the central family unit of the Karen and they trace their lineage through the female line. Karen use names and nicknames, but there are no first and last names.

“Often when answering a question that demands an affirmative answer, the Karen will say ‘no’ instead of ‘yes.’ This is a sign of modesty and politeness. Often the Karen are polite to a fault, and it can be hard to assess their needs,” the website stated. They consider indirect eye contact to be polite when conversing with someone.

The website said the Karen have a strong work ethic and are quick learners.

U.S. Refugee Act

The U.S. Refugee Act of 1980 incorporated the United Nations definition of “refugee” and standardized resettlement services for all refugees admitted to the United States. Refugees are defined as people who fled their home countries due to persecution for their race, religion, national origin, political ideology or being in a certain social group.

After consulting with Congress and certain agencies, the president determines the nationalities and number of refugees to allow into the U.S. for each upcoming year.

The federal government provides $425 per refugee to cover costs of housing, household goods, food, and pocket money for their first 30 days in the United States. Refugees may qualify for certain other public assistance beyond that.

Refugees may stay in the United States indefinitely. They are provided with a pathway to U.S. citizenship and usually can apply within five years.

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