WATERLOO, Iowa — A former underage worker cried Monday while testifying she was exposed to harsh chemicals at an Iowa slaughterhouse where she and other teens worked 12 hours a day, six days a week.
Yesenia Cordero Mendoza, now 18, was one of two former underage workers to testify against former manager Sholom Rubashkin, who faces 83 child labor violation charges stemming from a May 2008 raid at the plant in which 389 illegal immigrants, including 31 children, were detained. It's the second trial for Rubashkin, who awaits sentencing in a separate federal financial fraud case that followed the raid at the former Agriprocessors slaughterhouse in Postville.
Mendoza began crying while testifying about the raid and the arrest of her boyfriend and other workers.
"I don't want to remember it," she told prosecutors through a translator.
She testified she was 15 when she used false documents to get hired at the slaughterhouse. It was common knowledge that the plant hired minors, so she forged documents that gave her age as older, and plant officials never asked for any other identification to verify it, she said. When government inspectors came to the plant, underage workers were sent home, she said.
Mendoza and Rony Ordonez Capir, who was 16 when hired, said the work involved harsh chemicals that burned their eyes, hands and throats.
Ordonez said he cut meat using hooks and knives and washed down conveyor belts with bleach and chlorine. Mendoza testified she measured the temperature of meat packaged with dry ice.
Ordonez, who is now 20, said he received no formal training and learned how to do his job by watching his co-workers. He said he was cut and injured several times on the job, and workers frequently slipped and fell because of animal fat and grease on the floor.
He said he began work at 4 a.m. and would work 12 hours or more. When asked when he didn't complain about the ill-effects from the chemicals he used, he said, "If I told them, they wouldn't listen."
Each child labor charge is a simple misdemeanor that carries a potential penalty of $625 and 30 days in prison.
Rubashkin likely faces a longer sentence in the financial fraud case. Prosecutors asked a judge last month to sentence him to 25 years in prison. The judge has not yet made a decision.
During opening statements earlier Monday, attorneys argued over how much Rubashkin knew about the teens – at least one as young as 13 – working at the plant.
Assistant Iowa Attorney General Laura Roan told jurors all the children were working with false documents.
"Everyone remained willfully blind to the age and legal status of the applicants," she said. "That's what the evidence will show."
Rubashkin's attorney, F. Montgomery Brown, called the plant's hiring process flawed and dysfunctional but said prosecutors needed to prove more than bad management to get a conviction. He said they had to show Rubashkin wanted minors working at the plant.
"Negligence, bad management, that's not going to cut it," Brown said. "Not one witness will tell you Sholom Rubashkin wanted them there."
He also said letters from Agriprocessors' attorneys to federal immigration officials indicated the company knew the 2008 raid was coming and offered their full cooperation.
"If (Rubashkin) knew there were minors in the plant," he said, "would not a reasonable person have told somebody to get them out of there before ICE got there?"