Former Agriprocessors workers testify to work conditions
By JEFF REINITZ • Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier
WATERLOO --- Rony Ordonez Capir showed jurors how he wielded knives and hooks to cut beef at Agriprocessors' Postville plant as the state began its case against former executive Sholom Rubashkin Monday.
"My job was to take them from the barrel over to the small conveyor belt, and that's where I would lift them up and cut them into pieces," Ordonez said through an interpreter.
He talked about cleaning the conveyor belts with chlorine during breaks and how it made his eyes water and burned his throat.
"I cut myself, and also I hooked myself several times," Ordonez, now 20, said. The state asked him to show his scars, but the judge ruled against it after the defense objected.
Ordonez had worked at the plant for about a year and seven months but didn't turn 18 until about two weeks before his last day on the job, which was when immigration agents raided the plant in May 2008.
Ordonez said he got the job by using a fake green card. He said he filled out the application using his real name and address but a false date of birth.
Under cross-examination, Ordonez said his father and two uncles also worked at Agriprocessors and didn't try to stop him from getting a job at the plant. Since the raid, Ordonez was granted a work permit that allowed him to get a job at an egg plant while awaiting Rubashkin's trial.
Another teenage worker broke down in tears when asked about the day of the May 2008 immigration raid.
"I don't even want to remember it," said Yesenia Cordero, now 18.
She started working the plant after dropping out of ninth grade because she had a daughter.
When immigration agents came, she was five months pregnant with her second child.
Her boyfriend, who was an adult, was taken to federal prison.
Cordero worked in quality control at the plant and talked about working with dry ice and a disinfectant she would have to dip her tools in when she dropped them.
"My hands started to peel," she told jurors, also through an interpreter.
She also said minors who worked in her area were given the day off when people from the government were at the plant.
WATERLOO --- Prosecutors in the state's child labor trial against former Agriprocessors executive Sholom Rubashkin started their case by introducing jurors to children who worked at the Postville plant.
Assistant Attorney General Laura Roan flashed photos of the teens, outlining when they started at the Postville meatpacking operation and detailing what they did.
There was Elizandaro Gomez Lopez, who was 16 when he began working at Agriprocessors. He used electric sheers to process chickens.
It was fast work, Roan said, and Gomez was pushed to process 90 chickens a minute.
Henry Lopez Calel worked there twice, once at age 14 and again at 16.
The names and photos went on until the state made its way through the 31 minors who held jobs at the kosher slaughterhouse. Roan said many worked with electric saws and dry ice, and it was rare that they worked fewer than 40 hours in a week.
Many worked 16 hours a day, six days a week, she said.
This didn't happen in a Third World country, it happened in Iowa, Roan told jurors.
"This man is guilty of all of the crimes, because we say 'Not in Iowa. Not here,'" Roan said.
Defense attorney Montgomery Brown told jurors his client didn't want children working at the plant.
He noted Agriprocessors was under pressure from unionization efforts, an animal rights organization and a Minnesota-based kosher certification group. There were also visits from officials with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
With all that at risk, allowing minors to work at the plant would have meant the death of the company, he told jurors.
Brown said management at the plant was dysfunctional, and the gatekeepers in the human resources department were flawed and weren't doing their jobs.
He said that over the years the plant has given tours to campaigning politicians, city officials and OSHA inspectors, and no one raised concerns.
When Iowa Department of Labor inspectors came up with names of suspected minors, they refused to share them with Agriprocessors officials, so the plant wasn't able to fire them, Brown said.
He said the labor department was planning its own raid at the plant and wanted to make a big splash, but the U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement beat them to the punch.
Finally, Brown said, Agriprocessors knew the May 2008 immigration raid was in the offing, as evidenced by attorney letters to the federal government offering to cooperate. If Sholom Rubashkin knew there were minors working at the plant, wouldn't he tell some to get them out before the raid, Brown asked jurors.
Testimony is scheduled to start after lunch. The trial is expected to last about three weeks.
Rubashkin is charged with 83 counts of child labor violations.