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Undocumented Workers in Meat Packing Plants

by: OrangeClouds115

Wed Aug 06, 2008 at 14:00:00 PM PDT


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Check out this post by Kathy G on The G Spot (quoted below with the author's permission).

If you read only one thing today, please let it be Tom Frank's column on the recent immigration bust of AgriProcessors, an Iowa meat-packing plant. Working conditions at the plant were nothing less than hellish; inspectors uncovered 39 violations of worker safety laws and 57 illegally employed children. Underaged employees reported working for as long as 17 hours a day, six days a week. There were other serious violations as well. Employees worked  with hazardous chemicals and prohibited, and unsafe, tools; were forced to pay for their own protective clothing; and frequently were paid less than minimum wage. The Des Moines Register reports that one worker was promised

a bonus and a free month's rent to come. But the paycheck for his first week's work totaled $8.61. Deductions listed on his pay stub included rent and payment on a loan he says he never took out. He also said he'd been paid for 34.5 hours of work when he actually worked 48 hours. Another worker told the Register he had received no training and most of his pay was also withheld.
OrangeClouds115 :: Undocumented Workers in Meat Packing Plants
There have long been problems with the plant. According to the Register, "Accidents that led to partial amputations of three workers' hands in 2005 resulted in only $7,500 in state fines."

Indeed, the pathetically low amount of the fine employers had to pay speaks volumes about what is wrong here. Indeed, as Frank reports, the massive labor law violations uncovered in the wake of the immigration bust set back AgriProcessors only $42,750 in fines (an amount reduced from the original, and still ridiculously paltry, sum of $182,000 ).

When plants like AgriProcessors go uninspected and labor law violations go undiscovered, employers have no incentive to provide even the bare minimum of safety and fair treatment to their employees. Especially when the fines for violations that are discovered are so pitifully small, employers making a simple cost/benefit decision will decide it is in their interest to violate the law.

Who's responsible for this outrageous state of affairs? Tom Frank pins the blame right where it belongs: on conservatives. He cites a recent  op-ed published in the Washington Times by conservative leader Paul Weyrich, in which he lauds Elaine Chao's Labor Department as having "the best record of accomplishment of anyone in the Bush administration." After all, Chao has cracked down on labor unions and held the line against card check. Who could ask for anything more, right?

But I would hazard a guess, dear reader, that unless you're some kind of amoral, sociopathic freak, you're not exactly proud of a country of where, with impunity, employers force children to work 17-hour days, employees regularly get cheated out of their hard-earned wages, and losing body parts is shrugged off as the price of doing business. What do we need to reverse this appalling state of affairs?

Well, first and foremost, we need unions. As Frank points out, unions are an indispensable institution that keeps the pressure on and fights for the rights of all workers, not just union members. Changes in labor law such as card check, which would make it easier to organize, are crucial.

Secondly, we need federal bureaucrats who will actually do the job they're supposed to do and enforce laws that look out for workers' interests.

Thirdly, we need to step up workplace inspections. In practice, this will mean hiring more civil servants and devoting more resources to our pathetically defunded regulatory agencies.

Fourthly, we need to change the law, so that employers who violate labor standards will get off with more than just a slap in the wrist. They need to know that if they're caught breaking the law, it will hurt. Fines of just a few thousand dollars are not gonna cut it.

Fifthly, we need immigration law reform that includes a general amnesty and a path to citizen for undocumented workers. A big part of the reason AgriProcessor was able to screw over so many workers so hard for so long is that their workforce mostly consisted of undocumented immigrants. Frank writes that their employer:

. . . had them over a barrel. Many of them were illegal immigrants, had probably borrowed money to come to Iowa, and consequently were "very malleable," in the words of University of Northern Iowa anthropologist Mark Grey, an expert on the local meatpacking industry. "They're at the mercy of whomever's going to hire them. They're at the mercy of their employer, at the mercy of the immigration authorities. You're going to do what the boss says or they'll turn you in to la migra [border patrol]."

Now, to implement all those policies -- labor law reform, immigration reform, better bureaucrats, more resources for inspections, tougher sanctions on employers who violate labor standards -- two things are vital. One is more and better Democrats, including a Democratic president, a Democratic House, and a filibuster-proof Democratic majority in the senate. The Republicans have shown, time and again, that their only fealty is to their corporate overlords. They cannot be trusted, ever, to look out for the interests of ordinary Americans. Their heart's desire is to drag American labor relations back to the 19th century, and that project is well on its way to succeeding.

But vanquishing the Republicans, alas, is only half the task at hand. The other crucial part of the equation is keeping the pressure on Democrats to do the right thing. As we've seen time and again, with the bankruptcy bill, with FISA, with the deregulation of the financial services industry in which Democrats enthusiastically participated, Democrats, at this point, are often more a part of the problem than they are a part of the solution. This is why we need an independent movement that, while it makes strategic alliances with Democrats, is also something separate and apart from them.

Though vastly superior to the Republicans in every way, Democrats, in and of themselves, are unlikely to make the changes we so desperately need. The Clinton administration showed us that much. But Democrats in combination with a mass movement -- be it the labor movement, in FDR's day, or the civil rights movement in the time of LBJ -- now that is the way to get things done, as history has shown.

UPDATE: David Neiwert has more. Hint: it's even worse than you thought.

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Reading This and Tom Frank's Column... (4.00 / 3)
All I can say is that I am shocked and appalled.
I had watched Fast Food Nation, but less than nine dollars for 48 hours of work? Shameful  

- Elizabeth
http://lovingspoonfulkingston....


See Also (4.00 / 3)
this op-ed article in Wednesday's New York Times, "Dark Meat", by Shmuel Herzfeld, an Orthodox rabbi.  His principal point is that the worker abuses at the AgriProcessors plant may actually have rendered the food non-kosher:
You see, there is precedent for declaring something nonkosher on the basis of how employees are treated. Yisroel Salanter, the great 19th-century rabbi, is famously believed to have refused to certify a matzo factory as kosher on the grounds that the workers were being treated unfairly. In addition to the hypocrisy of calling something kosher when it is being sold and produced in an unethical manner, we have to take into account disturbing information about the plant that has come to light.
   --  --  --
What is needed is for the Orthodox Union to appoint an independent commission whose members have not in the past been paid by either the Orthodox Union or Agriprocessors. Such a commission would select a team of rabbinic experts to spend an extended period of time at the plant and then make suggestions and recommendations. This independent team would make sure the plant upholds basic standards of kashrut and worker and animal treatment - and that it is in full compliance with the laws of the United States.

Hebrew National used to run a commercial that said: "We answer to a Higher Authority." Well, we do. We need to express shame and embarrassment about the reports coming out of Iowa, and we need to actively work to change these matters. Then we should ask ourselves if our behavior and our values need improvement. Only if we truly think about these issues will we truly be keeping kosher.


Keeping up, then, with my theme for the past 24 hours (e.g., here or here), we could be looking at a possible lawsuit by consumers who believed that they were purchasing Kosher meat.

lawsuit (4.00 / 3)
I think that is a GREAT idea. Obviously ethics alone or even the law won't make these companies treat workers well. Lost profits and fear of lawsuits? That'll do the trick.  

[ Parent ]
It Looks As Though (4.00 / 3)
no one has yet tried to file a lawsuit on this basis (fraudulent misrepresentation? unjust enrichment?).  The only federal suit I can see that seems like it might relate to what went on at this particular plant is this one, but the complaint is apparently not viewable by the public:

U.S. District Court
Northern District of Iowa (Eastern Waterloo)
CIVIL DOCKET FOR CASE #: 6:08-cv-02039-EJM

Rodriguez Perez v. Agriprocessors, Inc
Assigned to: Senior Judge Edward J McManus
Referred to: Magistrate Judge Jon S Scoles
Cause: 28:1331 Fed. Question: Employment Discrimination
Date Filed: 06/04/2008
Jury Demand: Plaintiff
Nature of Suit: 320 Assault Libel & Slander
Jurisdiction: Federal Question

Date Filed # Docket Text
07/16/2008 3    COMPLAINT w/jury demand against Agriprocessors, Inc, filed by Orlando Rodriguez Perez. Scheduling Report due by 11/26/2008. (Attachments: # 1 Exhibits) (nef to pro se pltf) (de) (Entered: 07/16/2008)
07/16/2008 4   Summons Issued as to Agriprocessors, Inc.  (Attachments: # 1 New Case Packet) (to pro se pltf for svc) (de) (Entered: 07/16/2008)

This is a pro se action brought by this one individual, and is employment-related, but it could well be for something other than the specific worker abuses which have been widely reported.

And I didn't see any indication of relevant lawsuits in the state courts of either Iowa or New York, which would be my guesses as to the most likely jurisdictions for a complaint about the labeling of the meat.  This does not mean, by any stretch, that there are no such suits, only that my limited abilities turned up nothing (so far).  There's still plenty of time before any applicable statute of limitations runs out -- generally not less than 12 months after discovery of the violations at issue.


[ Parent ]
well, vegetarians (4.00 / 1)
went after McD's for their misrepresentation of un-vegetarian fries, didn't they?

[ Parent ]
Yeah, I vaguely remember that one... (4.00 / 1)
Found this article from 2002 announcing an agreement to settle lawsuits filed against McDonald's in Washington State, Illinois, California, New Jersey and Texas in 2001 -

McDonald's Corp. has agreed to donate $10 million to Hindu and other groups to settle lawsuits filed against the chain for mislabeling french fries and hash browns as vegetarian.

McDonald's also posted an apology on its Web site, acknowledging that mistakes were made in communicating to customers and the public about the ingredients in the fries and hash browns. The vegetable oil used to prepare the fries and hash browns was not pure, but contained essence of beef for flavoring purposes. Many Hindus consider cows sacred and do not eat beef.

McDonald's was first sued over the fries in Seattle last year by three vegetarians, including two Hindus who don't eat meat for religious reasons. Lawsuits were subsequently filed in Illinois, California, New Jersey and Texas.

The lawsuits were filed on behalf of any vegetarian who ate McDonald's fries after 1990. That was the year the company announced its restaurants would no longer use beef fat to cook fries and that only pure vegetable oil would be used.



[ Parent ]
And We've Also Seen (4.00 / 2)
the lawsuits against Aurora Dairy over their misrepresentations regarding organic milk, so it's not like I was trying to propose a wholly novel legal theory here.  I also remember hearing some years ago about some other disputes over improperly labeled kosher products, though I doubt that it involved the ethical treatment of the workers.

For those of you wondering, the consolidated class action complaint against Aurora was filed about three weeks ago -- there are approximately 20 federal suits filed over the past year that have been consolidated for most purposes in multidistrict litigation out of the Eastern District of Missouri, and the new complaint is designed to allow everything to proceed in a unified fashion.  Aurora, along with various retailer defendants (Costco, Publix, Safeway, Target, Wal-Mart and WholeFoods/Wild Oats) and Quality Assurance International (the organic certifier) are scheduled to respond to the master complaint here on august 29, after which a schedule for discovery and other pre-trial matters will be established.  (I don't know if this will work, but here's my attempt at providing a link to the complaint via Gmail, which may not work for others.)


[ Parent ]
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