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August 5, 2008

Orthodox rabbis: Agriprocessors Iowa kosher plant passes muster

http://www.jewishjournal.com/food/article/orthodox_rabbis_agriprocessors_iowa_kosher_plant_passes_muster_20080805

Rabbi Pesach Lerner, center, the executive vice 
president of the National Council of Young Israel, 
speaks with a worker at the Agriprocessors plant 
in Postville, Iowa, on July 31, 2008.
Photo by Aaron Troodler

Rabbi Pesach Lerner, center, the executive vice
president of the National Council of Young Israel,
speaks with a worker at the Agriprocessors plant
in Postville, Iowa, on July 31, 2008.
Photo by Aaron Troodler

NEW YORK (JTA)—Organizers of a delegation of Orthodox rabbis say the Iowa meat-packing plant raided by federal immigration authorities in May bears no resemblance to its image as a place where safety lapses are routine and workers allegedly are abused and underpaid.

Some 25 rabbis went to Postville, Iowa, last week on a visit paid for by Agriprocessors, the slaughterhouse’s owner, and coordinated through the National Council of Young Israel, an Orthodox synagogue association.

In the course of their one-day visit, the rabbis toured the plant and met with its recently hired compliance officer, the mayor of Postville and a Presbyterian minister.

Some of the rabbis also met with representatives of St. Bridget’s Catholic Church, which has taken the lead in ministering to families affected by the raid.

“At this point I don’t see any reason why someone should not buy things from Agriprocessors,” Rabbi Daniel Moscowitz, the regional director of Chabad Lubavitch of Illinois and the president of the Chicago Rabbinical Council, told JTA.

“They run a very impressive operation. They’re very dedicated to making sure that everything is being done in the most appropriate way possible.”

The visit is the latest effort by Agriprocessors, the largest kosher meat producer in the United States, to reassure kosher consumers and revive its public image. Its image has taken a drubbing since authorities arrested some 400 illegal workers May 12 in what the government describes as the single largest immigration raid in American history.

In the raid’s aftermath, employees have unleashed a flood of allegations against their former employer, charging that they were subjected to harsh working conditions and sexual abuse, among other complaints. The company has denied the charges.

On Tuesday, the Iowa Labor Commissioner announced that he was turning over the results of a months-long investigation of child labor allegations at Agriprocessors to the Iowa attorney general for prosecution. The commissioner, Dave Neil, described the alleged violations as “egregious” and urged the state to prosecute the violations “to the fullest extent of the law.”

Agriprocessors responded by saying it was “at a loss to understand” the labor commissioner’s referral. It noted that the company cooperated with the investigation and claimed the government denied requests to identify underage workers so they could be terminated.

“The government’s press release does not state that the company knowingly hired underage workers,” the statement said. “The company asks the public to keep an open mind and wait for the evidence before making any judgments about these, or any other, allegations.”

To date, no senior managers have been charged with a crime, though a grand jury investigation is ongoing. Two supervisors have pleaded guilty to assisting illegal immigrants in the procurement of false employment documents and a warrant is outstanding for a third.

While the visiting rabbis were careful to point out that they have no personal knowledge of what transpired before their arrival, they expressed confidence that current conditions at the plant contrast with its checkered reputation.

Participants told JTA there were no restrictions placed on where they could go in the plant and with whom they could speak. Several conducted their own interviews with employees, who reported that they were treated well and were provided with ample safety training.

“I was shocked when I walked into that plant because I was expecting a lot worse,” Rabbi Pesach Lerner, the executive vice president of National Council, told JTA. In a statement, Lerner referred to the plant as a “Cadillac.”

In the eyes of the company’s critics, and even some Orthodox rabbis, the fact that Agriprocessors paid for the trip renders the whole enterprise more than a little suspect. Lerner was outraged by the suggestion that the rabbis’ impartiality might be compromised.

“Give me a break,” Lerner said. “To impugn the integrity of 25 people is out of line.”

But Maury Kelman, a lawyer and Orthodox rabbi who has led congregations in Israel and New York, said that Jewish law insists that rabbis involved in such matters do everything to avoid even the perception that their judgment could be compromised.

Neither of the council’s two news releases regarding the trip disclosed that Agriprocessors had footed the bill for the rabbis, though it was reported in the media.

“If they’re going and being paid by Rubashkin, then that should be forthrightly disclosed—not that if somebody asks them, they should only acknowledge it then,” Kelman said.

“It’s very important if rabbis are going that things look totally above board, and that it’s 100 percent clear that the desire is to do the right thing and not just the expedient thing. If somebody’s being paid, you’re beholden to them. Halacha is very clear about this.”

The rabbis were criticized as well for not meeting directly with former workers, who have lodged the harshest complaints against the company, though they did meet with one of their advocates, Paul Rael, the director of Hispanic Ministries at St. Bridget’s.

Lerner said his group was expecting to speak with the workers and was surprised to see that none were present for the meeting.

The rabbinic delegation, which dwindled to four for the late-afternoon meeting with Rael, sought to establish itself as a conduit between the church and Agriprocessors to discuss outstanding issues.

Rael told JTA he was “absolutely” ready to open a dialogue with the company, while Chaim Abrahams, an Agriprocessors representative, said the company was “considering” the suggestion “in a positive light.”

Regarding past allegations, Lerner said he had asked that a file be prepared of worker complaints and that he would take up the issue with Agriprocessors. But Lerner stressed that the main issue now should be how to move forward.

Rael said he won’t be ready for that until various issues, like employee back pay, are worked out.

“The minute that I got through giving my little dialogue, they said, ‘That’s the past,’ ” Rael recalled. “I said, ‘Yeah, but the past is what created the problem.’ If their intent is to move forward, I can’t move forward until this issue is totally, totally done.”

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