The Des Moines Register weighs in on…
… the travesty that is Iowa enforcement of federal and state law and Agriprocessors abhorrent behavior in its lead editorial:
Protect safety of all Iowa workers
THE REGISTER'S EDITORIAL • JULY 13, 2008
It's been more than 100 years since Americans first read "The Jungle" by Upton Sinclair. The novel detailed unsafe working conditions and mistreatment of workers in meatpacking plants.
Last Sunday, Iowans read about Carlos Torrez as part of a Des Moines Register investigation.
To recap: In July 2005, Torrez had been working for three years at Agriprocessors Inc., a meat-processing plant in Postville. The mechanical saw he was using to separate chicken parts severed his finger. Another worker picked up the finger off the floor, and Torrez sought help in "the laundry room," where workers went for first aid.
The incident took place in the midst of Torrez' 60-hour work week. The previous week, he had logged 67 hours and taken home $509 in pay to provide for his four children.
During the five weeks that passed before the state investigated the accident, two more workers lost parts of their hands at the plant. These included Adolfo Lopez, who lost two fingers and a thumb in a machine workers called "the foot masher."
The three amputations ultimately led to the state imposing a fine of $7,500 - against a company that has had annual revenue of $250 million.
Adding insult to all the injuries, in 2006, state officials cited the company for failing to provide protective clothing to those spraying corrosive chemicals and scalding water in the plant. For years, workers were required to buy their own protective pants, jackets and boots. In January 2008, an informant told federal authorities that new employees had to pay for gowns and gloves they were required to wear.
That same informant said a plant supervisor put duct tape over the eyes of a Guatemalan worker and beat him with a meat hook.
In the United States, in the 21st century, even just the stories corroborated to date are unconscionable.
A federal raid of Agriprocessors earlier this year led to the detention of hundreds of workers on immigration charges. But the problems at the Postville plant extend far beyond the legality of its workers. The Register investigation uncovered problems with worker safety and with minimum-wage compliance.
The findings also raised serious questions about the state's role in overseeing workplace safety. Iowa needs to commit to ensuring workplaces are safe and adequately regulated - regardless of the legal standing of those who work there.
What has to change:
Conduct surprise inspections
State records show Agriprocessors' officials have repeatedly refused to allow inspectors with Iowa's Occupational Safety and Health Administration inside the plant. Inspectors then have to obtain a court warrant, which may take an hour or a day, giving the plant time to "clean up" if need be.
The protocol harkens to a 1978 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that determined inspections without court warrants violate the Fourth Amendment rights of companies that are not "closely regulated" by the government. Meatpacking plants aren't considered closely regulated.
That means state inspectors can't just barge in unexpected, as inspectors do at restaurants or nursing homes. So they must take additional steps to enforce the law without violating search-and-seizure rights, perhaps obtaining a warrant before they approach a facility.
Then get a warrant. It may be the only way to ensure an element of surprise in an inspection.
Fully fine the wrongdoers
After gathering the details in the three amputation cases at Agriprocessors, state inspectors proposed a fine of $10,000 against the plant. That fine was eventually reduced to $7,500.
Earlier this year, Eric Frumin of the Change to Win labor organization told a U.S. Senate subcommittee that Agriprocessors had been cited for violations that carried fines potentially totaling $182,000. The Iowa OSHA office cut those fines to $42,750.
Mary Bryant, an OSHA administrator, said fines may be reduced for several reasons, such as to encourage speedier compliance, which may stall if the company appeals fines, or to allow a cash-strapped company to spend its money fixing the problems rather than paying fines.
But the state shouldn't slash fines. The state should work to penalize wrongdoers the maximum amount allowed under law. Reducing fines tells a multi-million-dollar business that when unsafe conditions lead to a worker losing a hand, the company will get a slap on the wrist.
Hire more OSHA staff
According to Bryant, OSHA does not conduct routine inspections of meatpacking plants. The staff is simply too small.
"There are 25 inspectors covering the whole state of Iowa. There are at least 90,000 employers in Iowa," she said.
According to a report from the AFL-CIO, with OSHA's current staffing levels, it would take 119 years to inspect each Iowa workplace just once.
So inspections are prompted by complaints. Priority is given to fatalities and catastrophes - defined as three or more individuals being hospitalized from an accident.
Iowa lawmakers should appropriate more money to increase staff at an agency charged with helping ensure worker safety.
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Many Iowans don't give much thought to the safety of their job. Their biggest worry is back pain from an ill-fitting office chair. But for thousands of other Iowans, going to work every day carries the risk of losing an arm, an eye or even their life. And some of these workers are not here legally. They toil in dangerous jobs, with low pay and essentially no rights.
Regardless of what one thinks about illegal workers, we should all be able to agree that workplaces should be as safe as possible for everyone. Human beings should not be subject to physical injury where they work because they're too fearful of the government to complain about poor treatment or conditions.
Not in Iowa. Not anywhere in America.
Is your "glatt kosher" meat worth this? Is it worth the near-slavery and systematic abuse of human beings? Is it worth the chillul Hashem (desecration of God's name)?
Aaron Rubashkin and his family gave you this. Pay them back with what they truly deserve – rejection of their meat and rejection of their values.