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Jewish Journal

Agriprocessors tries to clean up its act

by Sue Fishkoff

August 5, 2008 | 7:04 pm

POSTVILLE, Iowa (JTA)—It’s 9 a.m. on a recent Monday and about 60 people are milling around outside Jacobson Staffing, the national employment firm contracted by Agriprocessors to replace hundreds of workers lost in a May 12 federal immigration raid.

They are hoping for jobs at the nation’s largest kosher meat-packing plant.

One woman chats in Russian on her cell phone. Thirty Somalis, the women in traditional dress, huddle under a shady tree. A group of young white men, most of them locals, sit apart from half a dozen African Americans who arrived the day before on a temp agency bus from Indianapolis.

Agriprocessors is hurting. According to Chaim Abrahams, an executive acting as company spokesman, the plant lost the majority of its workers after the raid. Nearly half of the plant’s 800 employees were arrested for working without documentation, and many others “disappeared in fear,” he said.

The company, which until May supplied the bulk of the nation’s kosher beef and 40 percent of its kosher poultry, has been trying desperately to replace those lost workers, offering higher wages and working through employment agencies across the United States in an attempt to return badly damaged production levels to normal.

The tour revealed many empty workstations inside the plant, and more than a few beards and side curls on the assembly line, belonging to rabbis pressed into emergency service.

“To the media, this looks like a for-profit company on one side, and on the other side, individuals who are hurting and suffering,” said Abrahams, as he conducted a two-hour tour of the plant for a reporter. “But the company is also hurting and suffering. We are not able to keep up production levels and reach out to our customers.”

Nearly three months after the raid and six weeks before the busy High Holidays season, kosher butchers and restaurant owners in the United States still report higher prices and irregular supplies of meat and poultry. Some critics charge that these reports are being exaggerated to increase sympathy for the company among kosher consumers worried about their dinner tables.

Agriprocessors is under fire for a litany of complaints ranging from labor violations, including underage employees, to workers’ claims of physical and financial abuse. The plant had been cited for state and federal labor violations before the raid, including inadequate safety precautions.

Although two supervisors have been indicted, the plant’s owners and top management have not been charged.

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.”

The company maintains its innocence. The owners—the Rubashkin family of Brooklyn, N.Y.—have been instructed not to speak about the case.

The tour makes it clear the company is trying to clean up its act. New workers are vetted through E-Verification, a federal system that checks work eligibility and legal status. Signs to that effect are displayed prominently throughout the plant, and those showing up for work are quick to tell reporters they have all their documents in order.

The plant is immaculate, with no discernible smell other than chlorine. Health and safety measures, including yellow chains separating raw food from ready-to-eat products, are conspicuously in place.

Agriprocessors is pouring money into new equipment, including an automatically timed salting and soaking process that went online a couple of months ago. New workers say they are receiving their overtime pay, in contrast to workers before the raid who say their pay stubs were doctored.

Some new workers, however, tell reporters their paychecks show unexpected deductions; several of those workers have since quit.

“Did you see a dilapidated, old plant?” asked Agriprocessors founder Aaron Rubashkin, who called to follow up after the tour.

“Did you see rabbis abusing anyone with a meat hook?” he continued, referring to one of the more egregious allegations of worker abuse from before the raid.

The employment campaign is bearing fruit. Hopeful workers are pouring into town, from Somalia and Krygystan, from Chicago and elsewhere in Iowa, all lured by the $10-an-hour wages, plus time and a half after 40 hours and raises for experienced workers. That’s significantly more than the $7 to $7.50 hourly wages paid before the raid and more than these workers say they can make at home.

“My buddy started last week, and he’s already making 16 bucks an hour,” said one young man from a neighboring town.

A Chicago man, who answered an online ad placed by a temp agency in Indianapolis, signed up for a 60-hour workweek and is looking forward to the overtime.

“I just had my interview, and I told them I’ll chase ‘em, I’ll cut ‘em up, whatever they want,” he said.

Like some other new workers this man, who declined to give his name after Jacobson representatives told employees not to speak to the media, said the temp agency made certain promises that have not panned out.

“They told me I’d pay $100 the first week for housing, and $60 a week after that, but the company told me today I have to pay $100 every week,” he said.

His pay is deposited directly into a bank account, and he is charged $5 for each withdrawal, according to a withdrawal slip he presented for inspection. He says he was told he must withdraw that $100 every week and pay it back to his temp agency in cash.

Rubashkin dismissed the man’s complaint, suggesting that he “is free to take a bus home, no one is forcing him.”

But the man is eager to work and has no intention of leaving. Although he “feels bad” about the Mexicans and Guatemalans he has displaced, the man said, “business is business”—a comment with which Rubashkin himself might agree.

Some locals say the arrival of this new group of outsiders has disturbed the delicate social balance finally negotiated in this small town of 2,500 residents, which before the raid included about 1,000 Hispanics, mostly from Guatemala and Mexico, and 500 Chasidic Jews from Israel and New York. The plant is by far the town’s largest employer.

That fragile modus vivendi “was blown apart” by the May 12 raid, said Jeff Abbas of KPVL-FM, the town’s feisty independent radio station. And locals are holding their breath at the sight of so many new foreigners in town, hoping early reports of increased crime will settle down.

The organized Jewish community mostly has stayed away from Postville. The only Jewish aid that has come to the hundreds of former employees and their families was a truckload of food and about $20,000 raised by a handful of Jewish social justice groups. Agriprocessors itself handed out boxes of meat and poultry to some of the affected families.

Many of the arrested workers, who never met a Jew before coming to Postville, blame all Jews for what has happened to them.

“They abused me, I didn’t like them,” said one Mexican woman, a former worker at the plant who was arrested in the raid and now wears a GPS monitoring bracelet on her right ankle, unable to work or leave town as she awaits her Oct. 14 court date.

But she and others interviewed were happy to see more than 400 Jews come to town from Chicago and Minneapolis-St. Paul for a July 27 interfaith service, march and rally on their behalf. She listened to the pledges of support rabbis and leaders of the sponsoring Jewish groups made that day, and she takes their words seriously.

“I believe they will help us,” she said.

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