Sunday, July 27, 2008

Finally Free To Speak Out

Last May, federal authorities raided the Agriprocessors Inc. plant in Iowa and arrested nearly 400 illegal immigrants. The immigrants faced quick trials, at which most of them took plea bargains involving prison time and deportation. Once they had nothing more to lose, those workers began talking to investigators about the conditions under which they worked, and the pictures they painted are horrifying. From today's NY Times:

POSTVILLE, Iowa — When federal immigration agents raided the kosher meatpacking plant here in May and rounded up 389 illegal immigrants, they found more than 20 under-age workers, some as young as 13.

Now those young immigrants have begun to tell investigators about their jobs. Some said they worked shifts of 12 hours or more, wielding razor-edged knives and saws to slice freshly killed beef. Some worked through the night, sometimes six nights a week. ... the aftermath of the arrests, labor investigators have reaped a bounty of new evidence from the testimony of illegal immigrants, teenagers and adults, who were caught in the raid. In formal declarations, immigrants have described pervasive labor violations at the plant, testimony that could result in criminal charges for Agriprocessors executives, labor law experts said.

Out of work and facing deportation proceedings, many of the immigrants say they now have nothing to lose in speaking up about the conditions in the plant. They have told investigators that they were routinely put to work without safety training and were forced to work long shifts without overtime or rest time. Under-age workers said their bosses knew how young they were.

It's no wonder that employers have been working hard to frustrate any real immigration reform if this company is any kind of example. One young worker complained about the long hours and stated that he felt "like a slave." Women workers complained about sexual harassment throughout the plant. Several complained about physical abuse by supervisors complaining the workers were too slow, including one man who had a duct tape blindfold applied and was then struck with a sharp tool (fortunately, no serious injury was incurred). The workers were forced to work long hours at low wages and were never consistently paid the overtime they were due. The company knew they could get away with all of the state and federal labor violations because the workers were too frightened by the threats of immediate deportation made by the company.

One union official put it quite succinctly:

Mark Lauritsen, a vice president for the International Food and Commercial Workers Union, which has tried to organize the plant, said he remained skeptical. “They are the poster child for how a rogue company can exploit a broken immigration system,” Mr. Lauritsen said. [Emphasis added]




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