US: Inquiry Finds Under-Age Workers at Meat Plant

Publisher Name: 
The New York Times


State labor investigators have identified 57 under-age workers who were employed at a kosher meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa, and have asked the attorney general to bring criminal charges against the company for child labor

violations, Dave Neil, the Iowa Labor Commissioner, said on Tuesday.

"The investigation brings to light egregious violations of virtually
every aspect of Iowa's child labor laws," Mr. Neil said in a statement
announcing the results of a seven-month investigation at
Agriprocessors, the nation's largest kosher meat plant.

In a raid in May, 389 illegal immigrant workers were detained there in the largest immigration enforcement operation ever at a single workplace.

Mr. Neil said that investigators had found multiple child labor law
violations for each under-age worker at the plant. They included
employing minors in prohibited occupations, exposing them to hazardous
chemicals, and making them work with prohibited tools like knives and
saws, he said.

In a statement, Agriprocessors said it was "at a
loss to understand" the investigation results. The company said it had
cooperated with the inquiry, providing documents and opening the plant
to inspectors. Last year, Agriprocessors fired four workers who were
under age but had provided false documents as evidence they were old
enough to work, the statement said.

Kerry Koonce, a spokeswoman
for Iowa Workforce Development, the state labor department, said the
number of under-age workers was by far the largest in an Iowa child
labor case.

If convicted on criminal charges, the company could face fines of $500,000 to $1 million, Ms. Koonce said.

On Friday, labor officials turned over a confidential report on the
investigation to the Iowa attorney general, Tom Miller, who will now
decide whether to bring charges. Mr. Neil said he had urged Mr. Miller
to prosecute "to the full extent of the law," making it very likely
that charges would be brought.

A spokesman for Mr. Miller,
Eric J. Tabor, said that prosecutors were examining the evidence but
that no decision had been made.

Agriprocessors said that it
had been informed by Iowa labor officials in April that under-age
workers were employed at the plant, but that the officials had declined
to identify the minors.

"As a result of the government's
decision, apparently those children may have continued to work at the
plant and presumably at least some were arrested" in the May 12 raid,
said the company's statement, issued by Menachem Lubinksy, an
Agriprocessors spokesman.

Because of the dangers of
meatpacking, it is generally illegal under Iowa law for a company to
employ a worker under 18 in the slaughter and packing areas of a meat
or poultry plant.

Child labor violations are criminal
misdemeanors in Iowa, carrying fines of no more than about $600. But
Ms. Koonce said each violation was a separate offense each day that it
occurred. Many of the minors worked at Agriprocessors for at least a
year, she said.

At least 24 under-age workers, as young as 13,
were arrested in the raid in May. Others who were not caught in the
morning raid because they worked at night stopped going to jobs at the
plant.

Hundreds of workers, mostly illegal immigrants from
Guatemala, were prosecuted on criminal document fraud charges after the
raid. Immigration authorities dismissed criminal charges against the
minors, although many were put in civil deportation proceedings.

After the raid, many of the young workers said they felt they had
nothing to lose in speaking out about their work at the plant. In
interviews, they said they were forced to work long hours on night
shifts, sometimes up to 17 hours a day, and were not paid all of their
overtime. They said they were put to work on racing production lines
using knives to cut meat and poultry with little or no safety training.

Elmer L., a Guatemalan who said he was 16 when he started work
at the plant, said he was kicked by an Agriprocessors supervisor,
causing one of his knives to cut his elbow. He asked that his last name
not be used because he is a minor.

Most of the under-age workers
said they were illegal immigrants who presented fraudulent Social
Security cards or immigration visas stating they were at least 18 when
they hired on at Agriprocessors.

But Iowa law requires
employers to make an extra effort to determine the date of birth of
workers who could be minors, including asking for a birth certificate
or other official proof of age, labor officials said.

In
recent months, Iowa labor officials have been criticized by unions and
immigrant groups who said that enforcement was lax at Agriprocessors
and that labor inspectors had responded to violations with light fines.

Some under-age workers could benefit if the attorney general
presses charges against Agriprocessors. Sonia Parras Konrad, an Iowa
immigration lawyer, has been working with investigators to get more
than two dozen of the workers special four-year visas, known as
U-visas, which are given to victims who cooperate with criminal
investigations.

A federal labor investigation is also under way.

The number of minors makes the Iowa investigation "a huge case" by
national standards as well, said Reid Maki, coordinator of the Child
Labor Coalition, a group of teachers and consumer organizations that
seek to stop employment of under-age workers. "It is especially
troubling since this industry is as dangerous as it gets," Mr. Maki
said.

AMP Section Name:Labor