The Des Moines Register has a feature today on Agriprocessors child labor troubles.
The piece contains the standard Agriprocessors denial: We did not know; when the state came, it could not find any underage workers; later it said it knew of some but it would not give is their names so we could fire them.
Does this denial hold up to scrutiny?
1. Iowa law requires companies to check the ages of all employees who may be underage.
2. Checking ages would have shown Agriprocessors that the IDs being used by these children were false.
3. Any suspect worker whose Social Security number did not match should have fired.
4. Add to this the claims made Agriprocessors child workers that Agriprocessors never checked their age.
5. Teachers and other Postville school officials say they knew Agriprocessors was employing minors – what surprised them was how large the number of minors, 57, the state alleges Agriprocessors employed.
6. By its own admission, Agriprocessors did not do due diligence. Asking the state to tell it which workers are minors is not doing due diligence – especially when a simple check of Social Security numbers and other identifying documents would reveal the truth.
7. But Agriprocessors itself was in the fake ID business, if the evidence seized by ICE is true. This helps to explain why Agriprocessors didn't check ages.
8. It's also important to realize that Agriprocessors' denial is based on Agriprocessors' version of what the state did, and the state is not free to respond to much of what Agriprocessors claims until indictments are brought.
And all of this is giving Agriprocessors the benefit of the doubt and believing that its spokespeople are telling the truth. And this is a big stretch when so much Agriprocessors has said over the years has been false, and when so many of its principals are linked to fraud and illegality that stretches back years in an unbroken chain.
Teens used fake IDs to land dangerous jobs
By NIGEL DUARA
Postville, Ia. — Ana Cecilia Arguello was 15 when she first started handling slaughtered chickens at Agriprocessors Inc., a meat-processing plant where hundreds of worker injuries have been reported.
Most of the time during Arguello's two years at Agriprocessors, she weighed and labeled chicken parts. But when the plant was short of workers, Arguello said she was sent to the organic chicken processing part of the plant where she worked with knives and electric saws.
"I cut myself, all over my hands," said Arguello, who typically worked 12-hour days, six days a week. "The knife was slippery."
Training, she said, amounted to a 20-minute video on the day she was hired.
Arguello, now 17 and married with a child, lost her job on May 12 when federal officials raided the plant and detained 389 workers in the country illegally. Twelve juveniles were among the detainees.
Last week, Iowa's labor commissioner urged the Iowa attorney general to pursue charges against Agriprocessors of criminal violations related to underage Iowa workers. The plant could face up to $1 million in fines stemming from the alleged hiring of 57 juveniles, ranging from 14 to 17 years old.
Agriprocessors officials say that the teenagers who worked at the plant used fake documents to get jobs, so plant supervisors didn't know they were underage. A company spokesman asked the public to keep an open mind.
In general, it is illegal in Iowa for a company to employ workers 17 or younger in the slaughter and packing areas of poultry or meat plants.
Meat-processing plants are considered among the more dangerous types of places to work in America. State records related to workplace injuries at the Postville plant show that between 2003 and 2005, the company reported 306 employee injuries, including chemical burns, smashed limbs, hand lacerations and severed fingers.
Dave Neil, Iowa's labor commissioner, last week said that investigators found numerous child labor law violations, including employing minors in prohibited occupations; allowing them to work longer hours than permitted under law; exposing them to hazardous chemicals; and allowing them to work with prohibited tools.
Some people affiliated with the Postville school district said that many in the community suspected Agriprocessors employed underage workers. They said it was not uncommon for young teenagers to arrive in Postville and go right to work at Agriprocessors.
Arguello was one of those teenagers.
Young workers say age wasn't questioned
Arguello, with help from a human smuggler, entered the country illegally from Guatemala on Dec. 11, 2005. She arrived in Postville by herself.
Arguello said she started working at Agriprocessors on a Tuesday, hiring day at the plant, considered the largest kosher meat-processing plant in the world. Arguello said she had already bought fake work papers and an identification card from someone in Postville who specialized in producing the documents. The fake documents said she was 22.
"You could tell we weren't 18," Arguello said in Spanish last week. "They probably knew. We didn't look old enough."
Arguello said she presented herself at the human resources department and submitted her fake paperwork.
"They came down and said they had a job," said Arguello, whose starting pay of $6.25 an hour had grown to $7.50 an hour before the raid. She said she sent money to her parents in Guatemala.
No one at the plant questioned her age, Arguello said, either on the day of her hiring or after she was employed.
"They were happy to get (us)," she said. "I think they needed workers and didn't care."
Elizandro Gomez, 16, who is Arguello's brother-in-law, said he went through a similar hiring procedure in June 2007, days after he made it to Postville from Guatemala. He said he was 15 when he started working at the plant, although his fake papers said he was 21.
Gomez said he didn't get any extra scrutiny about his age, nor did the two other minors in his part of the plant. "They never asked."
Arguello — who each morning prepared for work at the cold plant by donning two pairs of pants, three blouses, a pair of socks and filthy shoes — said she usually felt comfortable at her job. The exceptions, she said, were when she worked on the chicken processing line and production kicked into high gear.
She said supervisors in green and yellow helmets yelled at her to speed up.
The meat flew by quickly, said Arguello, who has a wide face and round, bright eyes, and giggles with a girlish crescendo. Sometimes, she said she dropped pieces of chicken on the floor. Supervisors told her to wash the chicken with a chemical disinfectant and put it back on the line.
It was fast, dirty work, she said. Next to her were a barrel for meat and a barrel for trash. Her 12 hours were spent filling the barrels, her hands covered in fat, blood and sinew.
Arguello, who didn't go to school in Guatemala or Postville, said she bled when she was clumsy with a boning knife. "They gave me Band-Aids," she said.
Arguello said she never filed an injury claim. She said she didn't know she could.
Agriprocessors has no record of Arguello's injuries or her job, spokesman Menachem Lubinsky said.
"If she did work there, she obviously used a false name," Lubinsky said.
Initial investigation had sought minors
Lubinsky said the labor commissioner's office began the child labor investigation in January. Investigators asked about the plant's hiring procedures; Agriprocessors said it didn't employ minors, Lubinsky said.
Five investigators from the labor commissioner's office conducted "a surprise, on-site inspection of the plant," according to a release from Lubinsky. "The team consisted of five inspectors, of whom one was described by the government office as a professional in identifying minors."
The investigators didn't find any minors, Lubinsky said, but two weeks later an unidentified attorney told the plant that the labor commissioner's office still believed it would find minors.
He said Agriprocessors requested that the labor commissioner's office identify the teenagers so that they could be fired, but the office refused.
At about the same time, Postville school officials were served with a 21-point subpoena from the Iowa Division of Labor Services seeking the records of Postville middle and high school students and information about school employees.
Investigators from the U.S. Department of Labor sought former Postville schools Superintendent David Strudthoff's work computer, as well as records between 2005 and 2007 for current and former students in the district.
A month later, the plant was raided by U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement.
The move angered union officials, who were trying to organize Agriprocessors workers and who had reported instances of child labor violations.
In the Agriprocessors child labor investigation, with 57 separate cases — each involving multiple violations over an undefined period of time — the minimum fine could be between $500,000 and $1 million.
Strudthoff, who now has a similar job out of state, said it was no secret that minors worked at the plant. However, he and others said they were taken aback by the allegation from the labor commissioner's office.
"The numbers are a little surprising to us," Strudthoff said.
In late July, several teenagers told three members of the U.S. Congressional Hispanic Caucus that they took production-line jobs at Agriprocessors when they were 14 or 15, and that they often worked shifts lasting 12 hours or more.
Arguello, who was working the day of the raid and was detained and then released, said she saw at least two other minors in her area of the plant. They were about her age, she said.
Current and former Postville teachers and school officials said that when a student left school, they usually assumed he or she went to work for the plant.
Strudthoff said many teens felt the tug of helping provide for their families — in Postville as well as in their home countries.
"When you've got grandmothers and parents living back in home countries, money is always an issue," he said.
Many teens chose jobs over going to school
Postville Elementary and Middle School Principal Chad Wahls said that many teens who worked at the plant never attended school.
"A lot of those kids came (to Postville) and went right to work," he said.
While driving through Postville, Wahls said he would sometimes see young-looking Hispanics he didn't recognize from school. He would pull over and ask them their ages, but "that doesn't mean they can't lie to us."
"We would've loved to have all those kids in school for funding and stuff, and of course to educate them," he said. "It's a shame that kids 14 years old were working at a place like that. We did everything possible to find them and get them educated and keep them."
Strudthoff said the school district held night English classes at the local community college on Tuesdays and Thursdays to try to bring teenagers who weren't enrolled "out of the shadows."
On the first day of class each year, about 30 or 40 teenagers would show up, Strudthoff said, usually about 16 years old or older.
"They'd been in town for months, maybe a year," Strudthoff said, "and they're all looking at each other. They'd never seen each other before."