On May 12, 2021, amid Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month in the United States, Tyson Foods donated $25,000 to the Arkansas Coalition of Marshallese to support the local Marshallese community. In March, the company also hosted a mass inoculation campaign at a Chick-n-Quick Plant in which the Ambassador of the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) to the United States was vaccinated. The recent donation reflects ongoing efforts to provide reparations to Marshallese employees and emphasizes the importance of Northwest Arkansas’s Marshallese community. The Arkansas Coalition of Marshallese focuses on providing social services, health care, and education to help Marshallese communities in the state.
More than a third of Marshallese reside outside of RMI, and Springdale, Arkansas, has become a stronghold for the community’s diaspora. Since 1986, the US Compact of Free Association (COFA) with RMI has allowed Marshallese to live, work, and study in the United States without visas. Despite emigrating to secure access to US education, employment, and health care, most Marshallese and Marshallese Americans have been relegated to blue-collar and service industry jobs like those found in plants run by Tyson, which is headquartered in Springdale.
Marshallese today suffer from chronic illnesses linked to US nuclear testing in the Pacific Proving Grounds from 1946 to 1962. The nuclear tests caused the forced emigration of Marshall Islanders, exposed them to acute radiation, and affected land arability in their homeland, causing RMI reliance upon imported canned foods. As a result, Marshall Islanders today suffer from several chronic illnesses including cancer and diabetes. COFA promised Marshallese residents equal access to health coverage through the American safety-net program Medicaid, but the Clinton administration’s 1996 welfare reform package excluded COFA citizens from qualifying. Researchers at the University of Hawai‘i found that this omission contributed to greater rates of sickness and death among Marshallese residents in America. Importantly, Marshallese in America have also suffered disproportionate rates of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, complications, and deaths. Such disparities among Marshallese in Arkansas led the CDC to conduct a multi-week site visit in summer 2020 that confirmed “Marshallese people accounted for 38% of the reported deaths” in Northwest Arkansas and bore “a much larger burden … than other racial and ethnic minorities” in the United States. The Omnibus COVID Relief Bill passed in December 2020 subsequently amended COFA citizens’ eligibility for Medicaid.
As COVID-19 swept through meatpacking and poultry processing plants in 2020, Tyson was faulted for lax safety measures that disproportionately exposed minority workers to COVID-19. In a July 2020 civil rights complaint, workers asserted that Tyson’s actions amounted to racial discrimination; as of May 2021, one-third of Arkansas workplace COVID-19 cases had occurred at Tyson factories. The Arkansas Coalition of Marshallese will use Tyson’s recent donation to support local food pantries, encourage cross-cultural exchange through cultural competency classes, help Marshallese update legal documents to work and drive, and provide access to the health care Marshall Islanders can now receive.
Sophie Glenn is a participant in the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington. She is an undergraduate student at Georgetown University's Walsh School of Foreign Service concentrating in Regional and Comparative Studies—Southeast Asia.