Starting from Zero
In the chill and din a multihued army of workers, girded in hairnets, earplugs, blue rubber gloves, white coats bulky over jackets and sweatshirts, bends over a speeding conveyor belt. A deluge of chicken hurtles past them: chicken wings, sticks, cups, nuggets, fingers, blasters; chicken honey crunched and Cordon bleued and Kieved; chicken stuffed with pizza, bacon, asparagus, cheddar. Known here as "product," it ceaselessly swerves and veers along the belt like a protein-packed Tilt-A-Whirl. Blue hands flying, the workers deftly steer it to its cellophane fate.The smell, the cold, the clattering Rube-Goldberg-like machinery feel out of time and place in downtown Portland, Chaplin's Modern Times revisited. But for the refugees and immigrants who comprise almost half the workforce here, the production line at Barber Foods is the undeniable present and, for many, the foreseeable future.
Begun by the son of an Armenian immigrant, Barber boasts the state's most diverse workforce, with almost 400 foreign-born workers from 54 countries. Many of those newcomers were forced to flee prosperous or professional lives; in a strange land, they must now, in the words of Besim Musliu of Kosovo, "start from zero."
Increasingly, Barber is where they begin. In a state that resettles the smallest number of refugees in the country, Barber officials have shaped a culture, complete with free on-site education, in which, as their Web site proclaims, "All Are Welcome."
At the same time, while Maine has watched its traditional industries — leather, textiles, wood — disappearing, Barber continues to expand its share of a burgeoning national frozen-food market. As a result, the state's economic and cultural landscape has shifted, and yesterday's shoe shop workers from rural Maine have morphed into line workers from Sudan or Cambodia. In company parlance, the foreign-born workers are "associates." To the workers themselves, many torn from old lives and selves, they are all now "Barber people."
To Ping Charlton, counting, filling, and packing chicken cups on the rapid-fire cookroom line, she is "a machine, a work machine." She is also a traveler on a long, tough, timeless immigrant's journey — one she knows she must take "step by step" to get by and move on.
In her native China, Charlton, 38, taught middle school math and Chinese. She loved dressing up, going out, playing the stock market. She paid someone to cook and clean her condo. She was, her husband Roland likes to say, "a princess."
She came here two years ago with her teenage son after meeting Roland, a Buxton truck driver, online. She had never heard of Maine — "Before, I don't know here" — and arriving in America she envisioned "an easy life." When she went to Barber for her interview, she wore a sheer black dress for what she assumed was an office job. Her minimal English only got her as far as the line.
"Production worker!" she exclaims, dropping her head in mock horror and raising glossy pink nails to her long black hair. "My God!"
Since then, she says, "I am doing simple job: put chicken in a box." But she is also gratefully studying, and strategizing, and mapping her sanguine future. She has taken dozens of classes at Barber, working her way from basic grammar to college-level English and algebra. Her plan is clear: Get an associate's degree in business. Get an accounting degree. Get a payroll job in the Barber office. Pay off her house. See her son in college, and the dream made real.
But for now, like so many before her, she juggles. She works first shift, attends classes up to five days a week, drives home to make supper, studies again. "I never stop," she says. "I don't want to stop. I must keep going."
"It hard," she says, then smiles and mimes walking two fingers along the table, the distance between past and present. "But cross this . . . Cross this. . . . Get better."
Hagop Thrabian, a young barber from Armenia whose family was massacred there, came to this country in 1908 after a fight with a Turkish boy left him fearing for his life. Officials at Ellis Island in New York could decipher his vocation but not his name, and proclaimed him a new person in a new world: Jack Barberian.
His son, Gus, who started what is now Barber Foods, remembers that growing up during the Depression as an immigrant named Augustus Barberian was "a rough thing." After high school, he began working in a fellow Armenian's meat market for eleven cents an hour; sometimes he also delivered groceries for extra pay, "penny stuff."
By the time he decided to open his own business, he had a new American name. Starting with a butcher knife and an old truck, Gus created Barber Beef Co. in 1955. Gradually adding poultry and phasing out beef, he became the first company in the Northeast to offer cut-up chicken. Then he took his leftovers and created nuggets.
As his enterprise grew, his family's history resonated for him. "If I ever made it, and I never thought I would, I wanted to help the immigrants," he says. "I knew how hard it was."
This year, Barber Foods marks its fiftieth anniversary. In the last twenty years, the company has quadrupled sales of its "value-added, poultry-based convenience foods," from twenty stuffed entrees to appetizers. Though far smaller than poultry giants Tyson Foods, Inc. and Banquet, it has become the country's third-largest frozen prepared chicken maker, and the largest maker of stuffed entrees. In Maine, Barber products are stocked in freezers from Hannaford to Sam's Club, its biggest customer.
Barber's long low buildings on St. John Street sit at the southwest edge of the Portland peninsula, between the West End and outer Congress Street, in an industrial no-person's land bordered by I-295. St. John stretches toward town with an amalgam of new and old: plumbing supplies and auto repair shops alternate with a yoga center, a gourmet café, and several Asian and Halaal markets.
The tall white plumes from Barber's smokestacks bear the sour, acrid stench of thousands of pounds of cooking poultry. At night, it sometimes mixes with the scent of boiling lobsters next door at Cozy Harbor Seafood.
Inside, the pungent smell lingers. Not so much in the office building, with its genteel click of computer keyboards, but in the raucous production facility. There, it wafts through long hallways teeming with workers in white coats, the orange cord of earplugs dangling round their necks. Over the shriek of compressors, they shout to each other in a tangle of languages.
In the busy packout area, where product is packed and shipped, beeping forklifts add to the racket. So does a massive, pounding robot that suctions up sets of stuffed, wrapped chicken breasts, drops them into boxes, folds, closes, and sends them off in a parade of sturdy bundles promising "Real Home-Style Goodness."
According to Peter Bickford, "It's all a system, the Barber way" — from the numbers painted on hardhats, each of which defines what machinery its owner can operate, to the color of hairnets, which signifies how much weight its owner can lift.
Bickford is a large, loose-limbed, amiable man with a degree in education and a fondness for John Wayne movies. Over his twenty-six years here, he has held various jobs — he is currently manager of the Learning Center and the Human Resources Program — and has seen the work force grow virtually by continent.
Bickford remembers early job applications from Cambodians: Under "previous work experience," many would list, "Pol Pot rice farm." Today, of 807 associates, 370 are foreign-born. Cambodians remain the largest group, followed by Vietnamese, Bosnians, other eastern Europeans, Hispanics, and Sudanese. Almost no Somalis work here; mostly Muslim, they cannot handle the ham in the flagship Chicken Cordon Bleu.
Having often come from rural places that turned violent, many newcomers relish the quiet and safety of Maine. They also praise what is Barber's clearly articulated respect for diversity. The company handbook spells out lengthy policies prohibiting racial or ethnic name-calling or even jokes. The lesson is drilled into employees, who invariably mention the infamous worker here or there fired for making racist comments.
"Regardless of what your culture was and is," says Bickford sternly, "inside these walls, we practice Barber culture." Still, he adds, "It is a business, not a social service agency." And at its foundation is production work that is loud, cold, and rough on the body. Workers say their hands get numb from handling cold chicken. Standing on concrete and bending over belts is hard on the back, legs, and feet. Shifts are intense, with only a ten-minute rest and twenty-five-minute lunch break. This fall the Supreme Court even heard arguments in a labor dispute over whether Barber Foods needs to pay workers for time spent putting on coats, gloves, hairnets, and earplugs. While the few robots reduce the incidence of repetitive-motion injuries, workers say they also force them to move faster to keep up. "Like Star Wars," smiles Alexandra Zabowicz, a silver tooth gleaming. Zabowicz came here ten years ago from Poland, where she managed a hospital. Even with the fast pace, she says, "This is my second home. Barber is good job."
Money is part of it. Barber's starting wage of $10.17 is more than double the national minimum wage. Medical and dental benefits are excellent. Many workers make enough to help families left behind: for Julianita Morrow, 40, who regularly sends money back to Panama, "Everything is for my mother."
For others, Barber's mantra of "personal growth" is an even bigger draw. About half the workforce is involved with support services, and with its focus on education and training, those who start on the line often gradually move up through the ranks. There are now "lead people" of every ethnicity and supervisors who speak nine languages. Many of those who flourish go on to fully assimilate and become what the company calls "New Americans."
Tyrone Ive — formerly Sari T. Iv in his native Cambodia — wears the blue hardhat and coat of a supervisor, with his name in red and the sense of authority that comes with it. He makes almost seventeen dollars an hour. He has a house, a car, an American wife, and a son. On weekends, like many other Mainers, he goes to the woods to fish and camp.
"I am a success story," he proclaims, beaming. "This is my new life."
Ive escaped from Cambodia, "running for my life," in 1981. He spent years in refugee camps in Thailand and the Philippines before coming to Portland, where an aunt lived. He arrived speaking almost no English. Asked when he started work here, he offers the universally specific language of immigrants: "May 6, 1984."
He began on the line as a "poucher," putting chicken into bags. He worked, he studied, he moved up to become a machine set-up operator. Last year, on November 24, he became a U.S. citizen. "I almost cried," he says. "I feel like home."
His memories of early trials in Maine, such as getting sick and struggling to explain himself in English at a Portland hospital, are still vivid. But they exist in a relative universe where older traumas linger, and acceptance is key. "The journey is tough — you struggle for everything," he says mildly. "It was hard for me. But it was harder to escape Cambodia."
Today, he says, "I sleep good. I get up in the morning and go to work and make money. On Saturdays, I go shopping and drive my car. I am happy to be here. It's the American dream." That dream, he insists, is available to those willing to work for it, and adjust to it. He criticizes older Cambodian employees, for example, who come dutifully to Barber's Thanksgiving or Worker Appreciation Day meals, but "still bring their own rice."
The different ethnic conclaves are evident in Barber's two packed lunch rooms. Banked by walls of microwaves and snack machines, they serve as lounges where spouses swap kids between shifts and friends talk in a buzz of languages. Many of the white-coated groups are clearly delineated. Vietnamese women hunch at one table, Hispanic men at another.
Other tables are more global in scope. A clutch of boisterous women passes around family photos, then names their respective countries: Sudan, Bosnia, Iran, Mexico, Congo. Nearby, Derso Mekonen of Ethiopia sits with Mary Sinclair of Portland. She says there is "an American table," but she likes mixing: "We ask them questions, and they ask us questions. You can learn a lot. Though a lot of what you learn is sad."
Clearly, some journeys have been rockier than others. Justin Mokisi, 46, has worked on the line for six months. A native of Sudan, he came from Egypt, where he went to medical school and practiced surgery for ten years. Asked if he sees possibilities ahead, he responds impatiently, "Of course, of course." He is taking advanced English classes. He is preparing for a master's degree in applied immunology and molecular biology. He is taking an emergency medical response course, which he hopes to be able to use at Barber.
For now, he struggles with vexing burdens: collecting and translating diplomas. Bureaucratic hurdles. Classes that conflict with shift work. Lack of money. Lack of time. Lack of will, after work, to study. Papers due for school. No computer. No break. All the tiresome tasks that go into forging, from the ground up, a new life in a new country.
"This is the area," he says, "where things are difficult."
And this is what Besim Musliu, 28, of Kosovo, recalls of his first year in Maine. Today, he still marvels at "what I had to do, to survive my life." Musliu came from Kosovo with his brother in 1999. He left behind his life as an electrical engineering student, his businessman father, his other brothers, his friends, his music, his car. "When you come," he says, "you have nothing."
He and his brother found an apartment. He worked on the line at Barber closing up chickens. He had another job at night, cleaning offices. He worked more than sixty hours a week; between jobs, he took English and computer classes when he could.
In his second year, he moved up at Barber into office jobs, and the pieces of his life began to fall into place. Now he works solely on computers. He has an American girlfriend. He has two cars. He and his brother are looking at houses. He even has keyboards to play his beloved, if unlikely, Kosovan country music.
He still misses Kosovo, and always will: "It is my country." But he says that Maine, too, now feels like home. "I am good," he says. "Day by day, year after year, getting better."
Hanging on several walls in one lunch room is a framed magazine cover that shows Gus Barber smiling in an orchard; the caption reads, "The Dream Grower." Managers like to point it out as proof that they are, in the words of one, "living the values of the founder."
For Steve Barber, that means creating for immigrants both "a safe place" and "a culture of learning." Gus' son and company president, he runs Barber with his brother and sister. Steve remembers his grandmother Rose struggling to learn English. But the company focus on education, he stresses, is "not just warm and fuzzy — it makes good business sense."
Thus, a new English class was recently added for about fifty workers, some who have been here as long as fifteen years, and who still cannot understand basic instructions from a supervisor. The class will help them; it will also "save all those three-way conversations" and eliminate the cost of interpreters.
Most classes take place in trailers behind the plant, where students' writing adorn the walls: "My name is Felipe. I am from Mexico . . . " "My city was Sarajevo. It was a beautiful place. . . . " The basic foundations program runs ten weeks, twice a week, before and after shifts. It offers five levels of English, and math, computer, GED classes. A few people go on to Pathways classes, a partnership with the University of Southern Maine and Southern Maine Community College that offers college credits and tuition assistance.
For Ping Charlton, classes at Barber "change my life." She grew up a farmer's daughter in a dirt-floor house in a village in central China. But her family was well-schooled: her grandparents were teachers, her aunt is a doctor, and she prized her own teaching career. Then and now, she says, "I must learn. I want to learn."
She is, she concedes, "not patient." Her husband, Roland, recalls that within her first month here she wanted a job, her driver's license, and to start school. Over time, they worked to resolve their cultural differences. She urged him to eat less meat and skip the "sweet words," and he urged her to accept borrowing money from a bank.
She struggled, too, to adapt to a life in Buxton that at times felt like nothing but "chicken, bugs, and trees." She wanted to be in the city, not the country. Winter was simply, endlessly "white." She was lonely for family and friends.
But she found Mainers welcoming: "People nice." She liked "the trees, the flowers, very clean." She was grateful for her son's free schooling and generous teachers. And "I am never frightened. Here it's safe — people don't have guns."
Above all, she says, "I like the job, and how they teach you. If you work hard, many chance."
She should know. At Barber she has taken, by some accounts, more classes than anyone. Her only complaint is the company won't let her take more. Having moved up to college-level courses, she counts off the credits she still needs — algebra here, biology there — for a two-year degree from Southern Maine Community College and a four-year degree from USM.
In the meantime, she works her shift. She sends her family $100 a month. She prods Barber officials to find her a financial accounting teacher. She peppers them with suggestions: Why not sell chicken rejects to employees at a discount?
After two months of "pushing, pushing, pushing," she convinced Roland to swap the ranch with the huge mortgage where they had been living for a "shack" down the road with a much smaller mortgage. Weekends, they fix it up. Soon, she wants to sell it at a profit, then buy another house, and maybe another.
And by that point, she hopes, she'll be working in the Barber office.
In a dress.