Slaughterhouse's Woes Leave Plant's Diverse Workforce Idle

By Nathaniel Popper

Published November 03, 2008.
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Postville, Iowa — This past weekend, everywhere you went in this normally industrious Iowa city, there were groups of men sitting around with nothing to do, plotting how to skip town.

A group of Somali refugees who, until this week, had worked for the kosher meat producer Agriprocessors, were eating a meal at Postville’s Mexican restaurant and talking about driving back to Minnesota. A group of men who had come to Postville from the Pacific island of Palau, met in a farmhouse outside of town and heard about some potential jobs in Nebraska. And two men who had come from Ohio were sitting on a bench outside Postville’s multicultural center, talking about Greyhound bus schedules.

Most of the men had come to Postville over the past five months to work for Agriprocessors after the company lost the bulk of its previous work force during an immigration raid in May. This past week, though, the company ran into more trouble when a former CEO was arrested, the state of Iowa levied a $10 million fine and a bank sought to initiate foreclosure proceedings against the kosher meat company.

And though Agriprocessors says that it is still operating, all production at the plant seems to have stopped. Workers have not been laid off, but on Thursday a staffing company that has handled Agriprocessors’ human resources told most of its workers that they were being suspended indefinitely. While neither the staffing company nor Agriprocessors explained the work shortage, the workers said they knew better than to stay.

“Nobody is going to miss this city,” said Hussein Omar, a 19-year-old Somali immigrant who came to Postville by way of Minnesota. “The people in the city are good people — but not the company.”

That company, Agriprocessors, has a long history of complaints from its workers. Since the immigration raid, executives at the company have been hit with fines for employing underage workers and for improperly docking the paychecks of workers. While the company made a public effort to clean up its act after the raid, the workers sitting around town were still bubbling with anger.

“The company has exploited everyone that got sent here, from the Somalis to the Mexicans, to us,” said 51-year-old Abdel Nasir, who came to Postville through a staffing company in Kentucky.

“We are from a small island; we weren’t expecting that people treated other people like this,” said Rayvan Adelbai, 23, who came to Postville from Palau.

The imperative to leave Postville was especially strong this past weekend, because the new month began immediately after the staffing company suspended the workers and their paychecks. The company that owns most of the property in town, Gal Investments, had its employees going house to house over the weekend, asking for the new month’s rent and promising eviction during the next week.

“They told us we have to pay, but we don’t have no money anymore and it’s not our fault,” said Singichi Eipison, a 22-year-old Palauan.

A representative for Gal Investments did not respond to calls seeking comment.

Before the May raid, the bulk of Agriprocessors’ work force — and the bulk of Postville’s 2,000-person population — was Latino. Now there are essentially three types of workers left at the company, each with a distinctive situation moving forward.

The first and largest group is made up of the newcomers from Palau. More than 150 Palauans were flown in during September, after being recruited by local representatives of Agriprocessors. Many members of the community said that in Palau they were promised free round-trip airfare and a job that paid $10 an hour, along with free housing.

Nicholson Nichola, 20, said the job had ended up paying only $9 an hour. And after a few weeks on the job, the company had asked the Palauans to sign a paper committing them to paying back $1,400, the cost of the ticket to Postville.

Nichola and two of his friends say they are now planning to move to a slaughterhouse in Nebraska. They found the new job through Elmer Herrera, a local Guatemalan baker and social activist who is widely credited around town with helping dislocated workers.

“Without Elmer, we would be stuck here with nothing — no money, nothing,” Nichola said.

The second-largest group is the Somali refugees. Most of them came from Minnesota through the staffing firm, Jacobson, which had taken over Agriprocessors’ human resources office during the past few months but moved out last week. On October 30, Jacobson representatives held a meeting for workers and told them that they were all being suspended. A number of Somalis said that Jacobson has not offered any help in finding new work or leaving Postville.

“Jacobson made all these promises about jobs — and deducted all these things from our paycheck — and then they just leave us here,” said Omar last Sunday while sitting in the Postville mattress store, which was recently converted into a Somali social club of sorts.

A Jacobson representative declined to comment.

The last large group came to Postville from urban areas around the country, organized by One Force Staffing. Many of these workers are ex-convicts, according to conversations with them. On Sunday afternoon, a representative for One Force, Patrick Massey, had a meeting for all the One Force workers, in the backyard of a house on the edge of town. Before going into the meeting, Massey said he had spoken with executives at Agriprocessors and they had not been able to tell him whether there would be more work for the gathered crowd.

“I wish I knew, but we’re not going to leave these guys stranded,” Massey said.

William Wilson, who came to Iowa from Dayton, Ohio through One Force, gestured to the men sitting around him on a bench outside the multicultural center and said it was only through them that he was getting through the hard times.

“If you’re not together with your crew here, you’re done,” Wilson said. “You can’t do it yourself here.”

For complete Forward coverage of Agriprocessors and the kosher meat industry, click here.

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