Slaughterhouse Accused of Child Labor Violations

By Anthony Weiss

Published August 06, 2008, issue of August 15, 2008.
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The Iowa labor commissioner’s office is accusing the country’s largest kosher slaughterhouse of 57 separate cases of child labor violations, including allegations that teenagers working at the plant used dangerous tools and chemicals.

Officials in the labor commissioner’s office said that a months-long investigation of Agriprocessors had resulted in cases involving 57 individuals, aged 14 to 17, who were allegedly employed at the company’s massive Postville, Iowa, slaughterhouse. The officials said that the case was the largest in state history and could result in up to $1 million in fines. The results of the investigation have now been turned over to the Iowa Attorney General’s office for possible criminal charges.

“The investigation brings to light egregious violations of virtually every aspect of Iowa’s child labor laws,” said Dave Neil, Iowa’s labor commissioner, in a written statement. “It is my recommendation that the Attorney General’s Office prosecute these violations to the fullest extent of the law.”

In response to the announcement, Agriprocessors denied knowingly hiring underage workers.

“As the government knows, it is Agriprocessors’ policy not to hire underage workers, and to terminate any employees who are determined to be under 18 years of age,” the company said in a written statement. The statement also said that though the company had asked the government to identify any underage employees during the investigation so that these employees could be fired, the government had given no names.

This is not the first time that Agriprocessors has run afoul of government labor standards. In March of this year, the Iowa Division of Labor cited Agriprocessors for 39 citations of health and safety violations and fined the company $182,000. In 2006, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited the company for six violations. Neil said that there are still a number of ongoing investigations into Agriprocessors, looking at alleged wage, health and safety violations. The U.S. Department of Labor is conducting a separate investigation.

The new allegations come shortly after a group of Orthodox rabbis had visited the slaughterhouse, at Agriprocessors’ expense, on July 31. Those rabbis reported that the plant seemed clean and the workers happy. The new charges will likely intensify the criticisms that Agriprocessors has been facing for its labor record from other corners of the Jewish community.

The plant’s working conditions have been under public scrutiny since a 2006 investigative report by the Forward. The accusations leveled against the plant have included charges that the plant employs minors, that workers at the plant are underpaid for their labor, and that workers have been injured and maimed as a result of insufficient safety measures. This scrutiny has heightened in the wake of a massive federal raid on the plant May 12, in which nearly 400 workers were arrested on immigration-related charges.

Child labor violations are considered criminal misdemeanors and typically carry a fine of $50 per violation. Each of the 57 cases included multiple violations. Kerry Koonce, a spokeswoman for the Labor Services Division, said that the fines could potentially total $500,000 to $1 million. The charges would be levied against the company’s management, although individuals could be named in the suit.

Experts familiar with the meatpacking industry said it was not surprising to find minors working in slaughterhouses, but the scope of the findings still raised eyebrows.

“I had heard for years that teenagers worked at the [Agriprocessors] plant,” said Mark Grey, a professor at the University of Northern Iowa who studies immigrant labor in slaughterhouses. “What surprised me somewhat was how many kids they were able to document.”

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