National Consumers League

Worker Rights

Worker Rights

Labor Day reflections: Lessons of Postville

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By Sally Greenberg, National Consumers League Executive Director

With this week’s celebration of Labor Day and current discussions of workers’ concerns during this election season, what a perfect time to reflect on this month’s news out of Iowa, where state labor officials recently released the results of their investigation of the kosher meatpacking giant, Agriprocessors, in the small town of Postville. Authorities determined that the slaughterhouse illegally employed 57 minors, aged 14 to 17, in sweatshop-working conditions rife with health and safety violations.

The National Consumers League — the nation’s oldest consumer organization — got its start fighting sweatshops and abusive child labor at the turn of the last century. Our visit to Postville in late August was eerily reminiscent of the working conditions the League’s founders saw more than 100 years ago. While in Iowa, we met and talked to a young man named Esteban, who had worked at the plant two years ago, at 16 — despite state labor law’s prohibiting minors from working in slaughterhouses because the work is so dangerous.

Esteban told us that he routinely worked 12-hour days cutting cow legs. His elbow displayed a scar where he had stabbed himself while cutting the meat. His supervisors quickly bandaged up his wound and told him to get back to work. Esteban said these injuries were common because the cuts of meat moved so quickly down the line. The danger of the work was just one complaint; Esteban told us of low wages, the fact that employees were responsible for buying their own knives and gloves for $140, and the commonly-known occurrence of workers being routinely shorted a few hours of work each paycheck. But one couldn’t complain, Esteban’s mother—who also worked in the plant — said, because plant supervisors kept it simple: “If you don’t like it, don’t work here.”

When the facility was raided in May, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents processed the detainees in rented a cattle yard in Waterloo. Many of the young workers—mostly from Guatemala—were undocumented. Because of their age, ICE officials did not detain and charge them with identify theft as it did with the adults, most of whom ended up receiving five months in prison for using social security numbers to take jobs that no one else would do.

While ICE has prosecuted two plant supervisors for hiring the undocumented workers, the agency has not gone after the owners of Agriprocessors who benefited the most from the illegal labor. The plant remains open for business, though its managers are struggling to find workers. They have of late imported a group of impoverished Micronesians who are allowed to work in the U.S. under treaty agreements. A local radio DJ, Jeff Abbas, fears that the workers will be little more than indentured servants, trapped half-way around the world from their island homes.

Three months after the raid, the workers’ families are still reeling. When we visited in August, we found a long line of women, mostly indigenous Guatemalans, patiently waiting for help from St. Bridget’s Roman Catholic Church. Unable to work, their husbands in prison, the women were facing deportation with only the church standing between them and starvation. Many of them had no idea where their husbands were being held.
The raid disrupted but did not destroy the state of Iowa’s child labor investigation, which ultimately revealed a much larger problem: the employment of nearly 60 children in one of America’s most dangerous work places. We fear that other slaughterhouses because they tend to use an impoverished immigrant work force may be employing more children. Unfortunately, there are not enough state and federal child labor investigators to prevent future Postville’s from happening. The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) has only one inspector for every 10,000 businesses, Kim Bobo, the director of Interfaith Worker Justice, told a Congressional hearing this summer. If the ratio of Wage and Hour investigators to businesses that existed in 1941 held today, she said, we would have 34,000 investigators. Instead, there are less than 750.

The Agriprocessors raid reveals the ugly underbelly of the ongoing labor abuses in this country: underage workers faced with dangerous, sweatshop conditions and undocumented workers powerless to assert any possible rights or protections for fair pay or safe working conditions. Despite a century of advancements in technology, industry, and finance, we’re still relying on the back-breaking exploitation of young and unprotected workers.

Congress should provide the funds and the mandate to DOL to vastly increase the number of federal child labor inspectors. Every slaughterhouse in America should be checked to ensure that children are not working illegally in unsafe conditions—that there are no more Postvilles.