The holiday season is upon us, and one thing that means for us at the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) is that we'll be getting reports of alleged improper promotions of religion. We'll check out these reports, and, as always, we'll find some cases where there are legitimate issues that need to be addressed and others where no lines are being crossed. But that's not what this post is about. This is about something that started out as a routine look at a possible holiday-related military religious issue, but ended up leading one of MRFF's research volunteers to stumble upon one of the worst cases of hypocrisy from a self-proclaimed "Christ-centric" company that I've ever seen.
A little background:
It's a pretty common practice in the military for officers and senior NCOs to do things during the holiday season to help those on their bases who are struggling financially -- typically the young enlisted service members who have families to support. Many bases set up "angel trees," for example, where people can take a tag off the tree with the name of a child to buy a gift for. (Incidentally, MRFF gets a lot of emails about these "angel trees" every year, but we've never once found any of them being used to inappropriately promote religion.)
One such holiday program is at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, where the First Sergeant's Council runs a Thanksgiving basket program, which this year will provide 300 young airmen with families with turkeys and everything else for their Thanksgiving dinners. A story about this Thanksgiving basket program on the base"s website raised a red flag, not because of what the First Sergeant's Council is doing, but because of who this year's turkeys are being donated by -- a Christian ministry called FLOCK, which stands for "Faithful Love Offering for Christ's Kingdom."
There's nothing wrong, of course, with a religious organization donating things for our troops, and there are many good organizations out there that do this out of nothing but genuine generosity and support for the troops. There are others, however, that have ulterior motives, and that's where MRFF steps in. We check to make sure that donations like this don't come with any evangelical strings attached, as they unfortunately sometimes do.
So, Mark, a research volunteer for MRFF, began our routine procedure of checking out this turkey-donating ministry to see if they have a track record of using their donations as opportunities to proselytize. As long as Mark didn't find any indication that the airmen at Whiteman Air Force Base were going to be getting turkeys that were accompanied by a note saying "This turkey brought to you by your Lord and Savior Jesus Christ" or something like that, that would have been the end of it. And Mark's quick checking-out of this FLOCK ministry actually was the end of it as far as it being a typical MRFF issue goes, but that was only because what he found out about this ministry was much worse than anything he expected. At this point Mark emailed MRFF president Mikey Weinstein and myself to let us know what he had found.
The article on the Whiteman Air Force Base website had said that the FLOCK ministry was run by House of Raeford which is one of the country's largest poultry companies. It is also a very Christian company, with a CEO who started a ministry "dedicated to bringing youth and people of our nation to a personal salvation experience with Jesus Christ through music, testimony, and God's word," chaplains at all of its facilities, and of course, its FLOCK ministry.
News releases on the company's website tout all the wonderful charitable things this nice Christian company does. Also touted is the company's unbelievable safety record, with press releases like the one from September 2012 announcing that one of its facilities had reached the milestone of "one million man hours without a lost time accident."
How is it that this company is able to receive awards for things like "OSHA recordable rates less than the industry average?" Well, as an investigation of this company by the Charlotte Observer uncovered, it's through the unconscionable way these nice Christians have found to get around having to report things like "lost time accidents." They simply force injured employees to keep working. If the injured employee returns to work the same day, it's not a lost time accident and the company doesn't have to report it.
We're not talking about minor injuries here. One of the cases uncovered by the Charlotte Observer was that of a woman whose arm got caught in a conveyor belt. Her arm was broken and part of one of her fingers was cut off. Now, an injury that serious would certainly put an employee out of work for a while, right? Well, not at House of Raeford. That would make it a "lost time accident" that would have to be reported as such. So, this injured woman was forced to return to work for the next shift. Since she didn't miss a complete shift, her broken arm and amputated finger didn't have to be reported as a "lost time accident." Problem solved.
From the Charlotte Observer's 2008 report on its investigation:
The company has compiled misleading injury reports and has defied regulators as it satisfies a growing appetite for America's most popular meat. And employees say the company has ignored, intimidated or fired workers who were hurt on the job.
House of Raeford officials say they follow the law and strive to protect workers.
But company and government records and interviews with more than 120 current and former employees show:
• House of Raeford's 800-worker plant in West Columbia, S.C., reported no musculoskeletal disorders over four years. Experts say that's inconceivable. MSDs, including carpal tunnel syndrome, are the most common work-related injuries afflicting poultry workers.
• Its Greenville, S.C., plant has boasted of a five-year safety streak with no lost-time accidents. But the plant kept that streak alive by bringing injured employees back to the factory hours after surgery.
• The company has broken the law by failing to record injuries on government safety logs, a top OSHA official says.
• At four of the company's largest Carolinas plants, company first-aid attendants and supervisors have dismissed some workers' requests to see a doctor -- even when they complained of debilitating pain.
Companies have a financial incentive to hide injuries. Ignoring them lowers costs associated with compensating injured workers for medical care and lost wages.
Also, the government rewards companies that report low injury rates by inspecting them less often. And regulators rarely check whether companies are reporting accurately.
But James Mabe, the manager of that 800-worker House of Raeford plant in West Columbia, S.C that reported no musculoskeletal disorders over four years, had an explanation for the apparent immunity of the company's employees from these injuries that are so common for everyone else in the industry -- Hispanics are good with knives! Seriously, this Mabe guy actually told the Observer: "Hispanics are very good with their hands and working with a knife. We've gotten less complaints," and "It's more like a natural movement for them." Yep, it's not because all those immigrants who make up so much of House of Raeford's workforce don't report injuries for fear of losing their jobs or getting deported -- it's that Hispanic people don't get injured because they're just naturally good with knives!
The article from Whiteman Air Force Base about the House of Raeford FLOCK ministry's donation for those Thanksgiving baskets says that when "the first sergeants started calling companies to get an estimate for 300 turkeys and Thanksgiving supplies, some were discouraged by the prices they were receiving - upwards of $13,000." So, what's $13,000 to House of Raeford? Well, that's only a little more than the $12,400 fine they paid last month for their latest violation of child labor laws, when they were caught having two teenagers operating an electric knife on a chicken processing line.
Federal and state labor laws prohibit anyone under 18 from working on a poultry processing line, another law that those nice Christians at House of Raeford don't seem to think applies to them. According to the Charlotte Observer, this was not the first time House of Raeford has been caught using underage workers. During a 2008 immigration raid of the company's plants, federal officials found six juveniles working on the chicken line, including a 15-year-old who was working 10-hour shifts. During its investigation, the Observer was told by current and former workers that "the company frequently hired underage workers" and six supervisors said that "top managers allowed the hiring to secure cheap, compliant labor."
And then there's all the environmental law-breaking. In August 2012, House of Raeford was convicted of 10 counts of knowingly violating the Clean Water Act for sending contaminated wastewater to a municipal treatment plant in Raeford. According to the Department of Justice: "House of Raeford allowed plant employees to bypass the facility's pretreatment system and send its untreated wastewater directly to the city of Raeford's wastewater treatment plant, without notifying city officials. In addition, House of Raeford failed to prevent employees from sending thousands of gallons of wastewater into a pretreatment system that did not have the capacity to adequately treat the wastewater before it was discharged to the city plant. The untreated wastewater that was discharged directly to the city plant was contaminated with waste from processing operations, including blood, grease and body parts from slaughtered turkeys. A House of Raeford former employee admitted that the facility would continue to "kill turkeys" despite being warned that the unauthorized bypasses had an adverse impact on the city's wastewater treatment plant."
According to a 2008 Senate Subcommittee on Employment and Workplace Safety hearing, "House of Raeford has repeatedly been cited by State and Federal occupational safety and health agencies: 130 serious safety violations since 2000, among the most of any U.S. poultry company." And it appears that the violations continue, as with this one from June 2011 where OSHA found that House of Raeford "did not furnish to each of his employees conditions of employment and a place of employment free from recognized hazards that were causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm to employees, in that employees were exposed to extended exposure to anhydrous ammonia due to improperly maintained/fitted doors where the broken doors allowed emergency ventilation of the atmosphere in the engine rooms to be reduced."
But amazingly, in spite of having no regard for federal laws, House of Raeford has received nearly $100 million in government contracts from the Department of Agriculture from the Department of Agriculture from 2006 to 2012.
And now, of course, this "Christ-centric" bunch of law-breaking employee abusers is getting some good press from the Air Force because of those 300 turkeys their FLOCK ministry is donating.
Would that first sergeant at Whiteman Air Force Base still be "amazed how generous FLOCK was by providing free turkeys" if he knew how the workers who processed those turkeys are treated by the hypocrites who are supplying this "Faithful Love Offering for Christ's Kingdom"?