Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Meatpackers on the hoof

Those 150 Palauans recruited for the notorious Agriprocessors plant in Postville, Iowa seem to be learning about the nefarious world of guest workers the hard way.

Luckily, as citizens of a Freely Associated State, they can legally find other work in the United States. The company began recruiting in Palau after a much-publicized immigration raid and allegations of wage and child labor violations.

Still, some of the tricks would sound familiar to immigrant workers. From the Jewish Daily Forward:

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.

Thanks in part to the Forward's coverage and attention it's drawn, many Jewish groups are boycotting the kosher meatpacker. There have been tales of illegal deductions and of recruiters and landlords connected to but not part of the company.

Stories about the workers get rarer the closer you get to Postville. You'd almost think Iowa papers are tip-toeing around the meatpacking industry. The Des Moines Register, a statewide paper, found one Palauan who had quit because working conditions were getting worse:

(Oscar) Andres said he had seen a surge in the number of dead chickens on a plant conveyor belt, lending credibility to concerns that Agriprocessors officials have been leaving caged chickens unattended for days because they could not afford to feed and process the birds.

Andres said the chickens he processed last month appeared healthier. But the chickens last week looked "half dead," he said. The stench was so overpowering that he vomited at least twice while working at the conveyor belt.

"This is not right," Andres said. "It was making me sick. I was worried about my health."

They also did a nice piece on how the company had affected Postville.

The Gazette in Cedar Rapids sounds like a Chamber of Commerce booster. It quotes a Palauan who doesn't feel secure about his job, and another that's satisfied. A retired priest says it would be best to get new owners. The editor of Postville's Herald-Leader is quoted as agreeing.

The Herald-Leader coverage?. Nothing about workers who have been suspended (and therefore don't qualify for unemployment), increasing lines in food kitchens and landlords threatening eviction.

They found some un-named workers at the plant:

The company's beef kill operation was suspended last Monday (October 27) and, as of today (Monday, November 3) had not resumed. Chicken, turkey and other departments, however, have been working each day. An employee, who asked not to be identified, said he was hired November 3 and is to begin work Thursday on the beef kill floor.

When asked about rumors that the company is having difficulty making payroll, other employees who were standing near the entrance of the plant said they had gotten their checks on time last week and they were cashed without a problem. A sign outside the plant is currently advertising Agriprocessors as a good place to work.

At least the newspaper is good at pulling fines and criminal charges out of court documents.

* An interesting sidelight: The 98 year-old Postville Herald was put out of business because of aggressive reporting that upset local business leaders What would the local coverage have been if it had survived?(Agriprocessors opened in 1987.)

** It looked flaky from the beginning. The Palau Meatpackers league? In a story with this breathtaking statement: "Orientation training will include an introduction to the universal principles of morality known as the Seven Noachide Laws which the US Congress has encouraged the whole world to study and observe as the bedrock foundations of civilization since the ancient days." Then again, the title was Calling for Palauan, Martial (sic) Islands and FSM workers, so it might have been a joke. Palau President Tommy Remengesau tried to warn people


Lil' Hammerhead said...

And you had folks like Temmy Schmull encouraging Palauans to go work for the meatpacking plant as if this was some big coup. It was disgusting. Sorry.. there are so many better options, including fishing and farming.. than going thousands of miles away to work at a meat plant.

wendy said...

Thanks for this in-depth article!

KAP said...

There's nothing wrong with going off-island to make a few bucks- look at Saipan.

I was just curious, and a familiar pattern popped up pretty quickly. Recruiters and landlords as cutouts so Agriprocessors could pretend innocence. Local media looking the other way...

The Palauans are lucky they've got some choices.