It's hard to argue, I think, with…
…two editorials posted today. The first is from today's New York Times:
‘The Jungle,’ Again
A story from the upside-down world of immigration and labor:
A slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa, develops an ugly reputation for abusing animals and workers. Reports of dirty, dangerous conditions at the Agriprocessors kosher meatpacking plant accumulate for years, told by workers, union organizers, immigrant advocates and government investigators. A videotape by an animal-rights group shows workers pulling the windpipes out of living cows. A woman with a deformed hand tells a reporter of cutting meat for 12 hours a day, six days a week, for wages that labor experts call the lowest in the industry. This year, federal investigators amass evidence of rampant illegal hiring at the plant, which has been called “a kosher ‘Jungle.’ ”
The conditions at the Agriprocessors plant cry out for the cautious and deliberative application of justice.
In May, the government swoops in and arrests ... the workers, hundreds of them, for having false identity papers. The raid’s catch is so huge that the detainees are bused from little Postville to the National Cattle Congress fairgrounds in Waterloo. The defendants, mostly immigrants from Guatemala, are not charged with the usual administrative violations, but with “aggravated identity theft,” a serious crime.
They are offered a deal: They can admit their guilt to lesser charges, waive their rights, including the right to a hearing before an immigration judge, spend five months in prison, then be deported. Or, they can spend six months or more in jail without bail while awaiting a trial date, face a minimum two-year prison sentence and be deported anyway.
Nearly 300 people agree to the five months, after being hustled through mass hearings, with one lawyer for 17 people, each having about 30 minutes of consultation per client. The plea deal is a brutal legal vise, but the immigrants accept it as the quickest way back to their spouses and children, hundreds of whom are cowering in a Catholic church, afraid to leave and not knowing how they will survive. The workers are scattered to federal lockups around the country. Many families still do not know where they are. The plant’s owners walk freely.
This is enforcement run amok. As Julia Preston reported in The Times, the once-silent workers of Agriprocessors now tell of a host of abusive practices, of rampant injuries and of exhausted children as young as 13 wielding knives on the killing floor. A young man said in an affidavit that he started at 16, in 17-hour shifts, six days a week. “I was very sad, and I felt like I was a slave.”
Instead of receiving merciful treatment as defendants who also are victims, the workers have been branded as the kind of predator who steals identities to empty bank accounts. Accounts from Postville suggest that that’s not remotely what they were. “Most of the clients we interviewed did not even know what a Social Security number was or what purpose it served,” said Erik Camayd-Freixas, a Spanish-language interpreter for many of the workers. “This worker simply had the papers filled out for him at the plant, since he could not read or write Spanish, let alone English.”
The harsh prosecution at Postville is an odd and cruel shift for the Bush administration, which for years had voiced compassion for exploited workers and insisted that immigration had to be fixed comprehensively or not at all.
Now it has abandoned mercy and proportionality. It has devised new and harsher traps, as in Postville, to prosecute the weak and the poor. It has increased the fear and desperation of workers who are irresistible to bottom-feeding businesses precisely because they are fearful and desperate. By treating illegal low-wage workers as a de facto criminal class, the government is trying to inflate the menace they pose to a level that justifies its rabid efforts to capture and punish them. That is a fraudulent exercise, and a national disgrace.
If Agriprocessors' owners and senior management are not indicted, the Times is correct. The next few weeks will tell the story – a story that has, so far, been written with the blood of the poor and abused, and not with the blood of the rich abusers.
Editorial number two is from the Des Moines Register:
Where's enforcement of labor laws?
Upton Sinclair's 1906 novel "The Jungle" had an impact. Stories of eastern Europeans subjected to horrendous working conditions in filthy Chicago slaughterhouses outraged Americans - including President Theodore Roosevelt. After many of Sinclair's assertions were confirmed, Roosevelt signed into law two new food-safety bills.
But in some ways, this response missed the mark.
People were more concerned about rats in their meat than about the abuse of immigrant workers. Sinclair reportedly said he had aimed the book at the public's heart but accidentally hit the stomach.
A century later, Americans need to get in touch with their hearts.
That need is unfortunately underscored by documented safety violations and allegations of other abuses leveled at a meat-processing plant right here in Iowa.
Agriprocessors Inc. in Postville made national news after a federal raid of the plant led to arrests of 389 workers in the largest single-site immigration raid in U.S. history. The public has rightfully demanded that the government enforce its immigration laws, after years of turning a blind eye toward violations.
But the humanitarian concerns about treatment of workers at Agriprocessors that have come to light also should prompt the public to demand change.
A history of safety violations
At times, the plant has refused to allow safety inspectors to enter and has benefited from dramatically reduced fines for safety violations, the Register has reported, based on reviews of public records. Accidents that led to partial amputations of three workers' hands in 2005 resulted in only $7,500 in state fines.
In the aftermath of the raid, allegations surfaced that workers had to purchase their own protective clothing, that they were paid less than minimum wage and that the plant employed minors.
Now federal agents say they have found evidence that an Agriprocessors employee helped distribute false immigration documents to workers. The company may have both broken the law and wronged workers in the process. An attorney representing workers told the Register laborers had to pay $200 for new ID cards.
The documented safety violations at the plant and the steady stream of allegations of other abuses are an embarrassment to the state of Iowa. They're an embarrassment to the entire meatpacking industry.
Sometimes the wheels of government turn slowly. Perhaps comprehensive investigations into all the allegations against Agriprocessors are under way. Yet, with no charges filed against company owners nearly three months after the raid, the public is left to wonder whether a double standard is at work in the zeal of prosecuting workers versus employers.
New workers, new allegations
In the meantime, new laborers have been recruited to work at Agriprocessors - young men from Somalia who say they are here legally as refugees - and new allegations of abuse have arisen.
These workers told the Register they were living in Minneapolis when recruiting firms and word-of-mouth drew them to Postville. Many are apparently replacing workers seized in the raid.
One said he and others were promised a bonus and a free month's rent to come. But the paycheck for his first week's work totaled $8.61. Deductions listed on his pay stub included rent and payment on a loan he says he never took out. He also said he'd been paid for 34.5 hours of work when he actually worked 48 hours. Another worker told the Register he had received no training and most of his pay was also withheld. Agriprocessors and the recruiting company that hired the workers declined comment.
Following the Register's initial report on safety problems at Agriprocessors, this page called for more inspectors to monitor safety in meatpacking plants, surprise inspections to see what's really going on and fully fining Agriprocessors when violations are found.
But even that wouldn't be enough. Workers must be paid fairly for their labor. Whether here legally or not, all workers have protections and recourse under federal labor laws, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. The agency does not inquire about immigration status of workers when investigating complaints.
Real solution: Immigration reform
The reality, of course, is that illegal-immigrant workers are afraid to report problems - afraid of the government and afraid of losing their jobs. They're also afraid to call police when they're victims of crimes and often are afraid to seek medical attention when sick. There is nothing so powerful as fear to keep people silent.
The solution rests with fixing our broken immigration system. The failure of Congress and the president to move forward with comprehensive and reasonable immigration reform leaves people scared, desperate and ripe for abuse. Perhaps the frustration over lack of a workable immigration policy also has hardened our hearts to the vulnerability of all low-wage workers, including American citizens and other legal residents.
It is unconscionable that in the United States of America in 2008, a refugee who fled turmoil in his home country of Somalia could work a back-breaking job for a week and take home less than $9 in pay.
This country has come a long way in the past 100 years. Refusing to tolerate the mistreatment of our most vulnerable workers would be the mark of true progress.
Jews were given certain exemptions to that act so that kosher slaughter could take place. But thise exemptions were narrow and based on testimony of Orthodox rabbis. The kosher slaughter exempted did not involve ripping out a cow's throat with a meat hook.
The reforms instituted also were meant to protect workers.
The Rubashkin family of Chabad hasidim and their rabbinic enablers from across the Orthodox spectrum have brought us back 102 years, and have made a mockery of the Humane Slaughter Act, child labor and minimum wage laws, worker safety regulations and basic human decency.
And that, my friends, is the true legacy of Orthodox Judaism in America.
[Hat Tips; Yochanan Lavie, Chaim Yankel.]