Slaughterhouse in Iowa takes advantage of child labor – National Consumers League

Immigration officials raided the Agriprocessors kosher meat plant in Postville, Iowa, uncovering health and safety violations and illegal, dangerous employment of minors. NCL sent our child labor expert Reid Maki to Postville report on a community still reeling.

Since the immigration raid on the Agriprocessors kosher meat plant in Postville, Iowa last May, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which maintains a seat on the board of the National Consumers League (NCL), has diligently been trying to alert the nation that minors were working in the plant, which it had been trying to organize (along with an Agriprocessors plant in Brooklyn) since 2005. Because of its child labor work, the staff at NCL took great interest in the possibility of child labor at the plant.  In late August, the state of Iowa announced the findings of its child labor investigation, concluding that 57 minors, aged 14 to 17, were employed illegally in the slaughterhouse under working conditions rife with health and safety violations. With dozens of articles about the working conditions and child labor at the plant in the national media, including extensive coverage in the New York Times, Sally decided that the story was too big for NCL not to take action, given our history of advocacy on child labor, sweatshops, and worker rights. The nightmarish working conditions seemed eerily similar to those NCL’s founders fought 100 years ago.

I flew out for a two-day visit to do our own investigation.

Immigration Raid Nearly Destroys Town

Three months after the raid in May, the families of primarily Guatemalan workers who were detained were still reeling. I visited St. Bridget’s Catholic Church where I found a long line of women, about 30 in all—mostly indigenous people from Guatemala— patiently waiting for help. Unable to work—their husbands in prison—the women were facing deportation with only the church standing between them and starvation.

The church was paying their rent, utilities, and food bills. Many wives had not even been told what penal facility their husbands were being held in. They could only hope and pray that they—and their children (many of whom were born in the United States and are citizens of this country)—someday, somehow will be reunited with their husbands. I had extensive conversations with members of the clergy. One priest had been in the plant and confirmed the unsafe, unsanitary conditions that have been suggested by the fines levied by the state of Iowa. 

Accomplished with assault rifles and a helicopter, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raid clearly cost the federal government several million dollars to perform. Only the future will determine whether it deters future illegal immigration. But by threatening to charge the workers with aggravated identity theft and forcing them to agree to a five-month prison sentence, ICE had been overzealous in the minds of many advocates in Postville and beyond. The workers were processed for arrest at a livestock facility in Waterloo—the National Cattle Congress—leaving many advocates to wonder if ICE viewed the workers as less-than-human.

The approach ICE took in the courts certainly raised questions about whether the workers received a fair day in court. Essentially, ICE told them that they should plead guilty to intentionally using false Social Security Numbers—the workers were merely using numbers to work, not to commit fraud and steal funds—for which they would be sentenced to five months in prison. If they decided to fight the charge, they would be held indefinitely in jail until their trial date (there would be no opportunity for bail because they were deemed to be in the country illegally). They would then be charged with aggravated identity theft. If found guilty, they would likely receive a stiffer sentence and then be deported. The workers, who had very little time to discuss the case with their federally-appointed attorneys, decided they had little choice but to plead guilty.  They were “tried” in court in groups of five or six. Attorneys and judges were provided with scripts by ICE prosecution teams. As Erik Camayd-Freixas, an interpreter for the immigrants who was hired by ICE, has noted in an important essay about the raid, the men were “caught between hopelessness and despair”. Many wept in fear of what would become of their families while they were imprisoned. Despite their guilty pleas, the workers, argued Camayd-Freixas, were most likely innocent. They did not seem to understand what a Social Security Number was or how the numbers got on their applications so in Camayd-Freixas’s view they could not “knowingly” have used the fake numbers—criteria of the charge. 

One supervisor at Agriprocessors has pled guilty to falsifying paperwork and knowingly hiring undocumented workers. Another awaits trial. However, ICE has not gone after the owners of Agriprocessors who benefited the most from the illegal labor. Agriprocessors is still open for business, although its output has been diminished. Plant managers are struggling to find workers. In their desperation, they are importing a group of impoverished Micronesians who are allowed to work in the United States under treaty agreements. Local radio personality Jeff Abbas fears that the workers will be little more than indentured servants, trapped halfway around the world from their island homes.

The ICE raid has clearly devastated the town of Postville, removing a third of the population of 2,500 people overnight. Businesses have had to close. Others are trying to hang on. The schools are wondering how they can absorb the loss of state funding that accompanies such a massive drop in enrollment. Some have wondered if the town will survive the raid. If not for the church’s assistance, the workers’ families would have faced hunger and homelessness.

Child Labor

Despite a gag order placed on the child laborers by their attorney, one of the reporters I met during my visit was able to take me to the home of a 16-year-old who had worked in the plant up until the raid. She would not talk to me because of the gag order but her brother, Esteban, 18, had worked in the plant two years ago when he was 16. He was willing to talk.

Esteban told us that he worked long 12-hour days cutting cow legs. He showed us a nasty scar on his elbow where he had stabbed himself accidentally while cutting meat. His supervisors at Agriprocessors quickly bandaged up his wound and told him to go back to work. He said cuts were common because the line of moving meat went so quickly. 

State labor law prohibits minors from working in the slaughter and packing areas of plants because the labor is deemed too dangerous for minors. His employers knew he was underage but didn’t care, said Esteban, whose hourly pay was $6.25. His employer required him to purchase the knives that he used in the plant at a price of $60 and then they took out another $80 for gloves. He was routinely shorted a few hours of work in every paycheck. The plant refused to pay him and his mother, Veronica, for the overtime work they performed. The supervisors would tell them that “if they didn’t like it, they didn’t have to work there,” said Veronica.

According to a New York Times report published August 6, another youth, Elmer, said that when he was 16 working in the plant, a supervisor kicked him, causing a knife to cut his elbow. Elmer reported that he worked 17-hour shifts, six days a week. His life consisted of nothing but work and sleep, he testified in an affidavit. “I was very sad,” he said, “and I felt like a slave.” 

“It was no big secret that kids were working at the plant,” Jeff Abbas of Postville’s KPVL radio station told me.

Plant management denied knowingly hiring minors. Getzel Rubashkin, the grandson of Agriprocessors’ founder, told NCL that the underage hirings were the result of paperwork errors and not any intent to employ minors.

Many of the young workers—mostly from Guatemala—were undocumented. Because of their age, ICE officials who raided the plant in May did not detain and charge them with identify theft as they did the adults detained.

Despite fears, the raid did not destroy the state’s child labor investigation, which ultimately revealed a problem that American consumers should consider far more serious than the employment of a few hundred undocumented immigrants: the employment of nearly 60 children in one of America’s most dangerous work places.

For the National Consumers League the discovery of such a large group of children working in slaughterhouse raises the possibility that minors may be working in other meat packing houses. 

Unfortunately, according to a hearing in the House of Representatives held this summer, the U.S. Department of Labor has only one labor inspector for every 10,000 businesses. One witness, Kim Bobo, the director of Interfaith Worker Justice (and a speaker at our June centennial conference on Muller v. Oregon), told representatives that if the ratio of investigators to businesses that existed in 1941 held today, we would have 34,000 investigators. Instead, there are fewer than 750.

One might also speculate that if the Agriprocessors plant had been unionized, the child labor violations would have been prevented and the plant’s awful track record on health and safety violations would have been mitigated.

 Our next advocacy steps

  • We have submitted an op-ed to several newspapers, including the New York TimesUSA Today, and The Christian Science Monitor, discussing Postville and using it as an argument for doubling the number of federal child labor investigators.
  • We will ask U.S. DOL by letter to conduct a targeted investigation of meatpacking around the nation.
  • We have communicated our concerns to Iowa’s Senator Tom Harkin, with whom we work closely on child labor issues.
  • NCL also plans to continue efforts to get the Department of Labor (DOL) to increase the number of jobs that are defined as “hazardous” —and prohibited—for teenagers. Despite strong recommendations to enhance these “hazardous orders” from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and NCL’s Child Labor Coalition, DOL has dragged its feet on improving the “Hazardous Orders” and refused to act to protect working children.
  • NCL will also pursue strengthening state child labor laws. I recently attended the national convention of the Interstate Labor Standards Association, a gathering of the state officials who enforce child labor laws, to help further that purpose. We are also conducting a review of state labor laws to help us target those states whose laws need the most improvement.
  • On September 23, Sally Greenberg is scheduled to testify before the House Subcommittee on Workforce Protections on behalf of the Child Labor Coalition. Sally will push for an increase in the number of federal child labor investigators and prod U.S. DOL to implement NIOSH’s recommendations to improve the Hazardous Orders and further protect working children. NCL is working with congressional staff to organize the hearing and ensure that the “Children in the Fields” issue and the Postville issue are highlighted during the hearing.