The list of allegations against the Postville, Iowa, slaughterhouse recently raided by federal officials for its use of illegal immigrant workers reads like a story collectively written by Upton Sinclair, Charles Dickens and Harriet Beecher Stowe.
Agriprocessors, the nation's largest kosher meatpacking plant, is at the center of page after page of sickening accusations. These are contained in an affidavit for a search warrant filed by a federal agent with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
• Undocumented workers from Guatemala and Mexico were paid as little as $5 per hour -- below minimum wage.
• A supervisor made a side business of selling the workers used vehicles, sometimes threatening them with loss of their job if they didn't purchase one.
• A supervisor duct-taped the eyes of an employee, who was then hit with a meat hook. The employee declined to report the incident for fear of being fired.
Then there are the safety issues that have dogged the operation. The Des Moines Register reviewed the latest available worker-injury reports. It found that in 2004 there were 120 injuries, such as workers suffering chemical burns and broken ribs. In 2005, there were 103 injuries that included hearing losses.
Also in 2005 there were three amputations by Agriprocessors machinery. The paper reported on Carlos Torrez, a father of four, who was working a 60-hour week when a mechanical saw used to cut up chicken parts took off a finger.
For these multiple amputations the company was fined $7,500 by state regulators.
Safety equipment was another way to extort money from workers. According to the Register, a memo from the company's vice president included an "equipment price list." Workers were charged $30 for pants and $30 for jackets if they wanted to protect themselves from the caustic chemicals they handled.
Women workers were particularly at risk. A Catholic nun reported that females were told that sexual favors were the barter for a promotion or shift change.
Company officials routinely refused to allow safety inspectors on the property without a court order.
Then, on May 12, an immigration raid occurred and more than a third of Agriprocessors' work force was detained as suspected illegal aliens. There are now some 270 workers, most from rural Guatemala, in federal prison on charges of using false identity documents.
Federal agents have also arrested two low-level supervisors, including one who is alleged to have charged workers $200 for new documents so they could continue working at the plant.
This is a start, but the arrests need to continue up the chain to the plant's top managers and owners. These overseers have been running a modern-day plantation or workhouse -- or whatever one might call today's hell-on-earth equivalent.
Their denials about knowing they were employing an illegal work force are implausible. For years Agriprocessors has been receiving letters from Social Security Administration telling the company of discrepancies between employee names and their stated Social Security numbers. In 2006 the plant was told that at least 500 workers had such discrepancies.
"Agriprocessors is a poster child for how to use a broken immigration system to exploit workers," notes Scott Frotman, a spokesman for the United Food and Commercial Workers Union.
Company officials were able to keep their work force helpless due to the undocumented status of so many. The result was inevitable: lousy pay, a disregard for safety, and workers cheated at every turn.
This is why I support the federal government's newfound vigor in investigating industries that rely on illegal alien labor. This is why we need to mandate that employers verify the legal status of their workers, with tough penalties attached for those found with undocumented employees.
Meatpacking at a unionized facility was at one time a ticket to a middle-class life. Today, thanks to absurdly lax enforcement of immigration laws, the same type of work buys a peasant's existence.
Illegal aliens are peasants-for-hire, and their exploitation is something too many companies relish when given the chance. We have to stop giving them that chance.
Originally published in the St. Petersburg Times