Mainstream media and many of the blogs covered the raid of the Agriprocessors, Inc. meatpacking plant in Postville, IA when it took place back in May. It was the largest immigration raid of a single site by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) in history: Nearly 400 immigrant workers were arrested and held at a cattle exhibit hall (a perverse facet of the story that I'll let go without comment for the moment) while they awaited sentencing or deportation.
In the New York Times editorial section yesterday, commentary on an essay written by one of the Spanish-language interpreters in the raid puts a big, bold circle around the inhumane treatment of undocumented workers in the food system. The essay, penned by Professor Erik Camayd-Freixas, can be downloaded from the NYT editorial. I urge everyone to read it; it's positively chilling.
Agriprocessors, Inc. was the nation's largest processor of kosher meat. If you've ever seen an industrial meatpacking plant, you know that it's a decidedly unpleasant place to work, even under the best conditions. (If you haven't ever seen one, the film version of Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation or the Austrian film Our Daily Bread provide some realistic -- and highly disturbing -- visuals of the workers who process our meat.) According to the Washington Post, life at Agriprocessors was made worse by repeated violations of health, safety, and labor laws over the years. (The plant also had its own Downergate episode in 2004.) In fact, the ICE raid apparently disrupted a separate investigation by the U.S. Labor Department of child labor violations at the plant.
On May 17, according to the Camayd-Freixas' essay, inhumane treatment of these meatpacking workers reached a new level. He describes the process by which workers, after their arrest at the plant in Postville, were brought in for arraignment (and may I add, arraignment at the cattle exhibit hall):
Then began the saddest procession I have ever witnessed.... Driven single-file in groups of 10, shackled at the wrists, waist and ankles, chains dragging as they shuffled through, the slaughterhouse workers were brought in for arraignment, sat and listened through headsets to the interpreted initial appearance, before marching out again to be bused to different county jails, only to make room for the next row of 10. They appeared to be uniformly no more than 5 ft. tall, mostly illiterate Guatemalan peasants with Mayan last names, some being relatives... some in tears; others with faces of worry, fear, and embarrassment.
The charging and sentencing of the workers, says Camayd-Freixas, "oddly resembled a judicial assembly line where the meat packers were mass processed." How fitting. Under habeas corpus law, the workers had to be charged in 72 hours or be released for deportation. In its rush to get through the nearly 400 cases, ICE forced lawyers, judges and interpreters to work overtime, and lawyers had little direct contact with the workers they were representing.
The whole thing was a cruel circus. Workers were told they would be charged with aggravated identity theft and were offered a choice between pleading innocence-- which would mean, ICE told them, anywhere from 6 to 8 months in jail before they even saw a trial -- or pleading guilty to a lesser charge, which would bring 5 months in jail followed by deportation without trial. Most workers, wishing to be deported as soon as possible so they could get back to their families, chose the guilty plea. Camayd-Freixas describes one worker's angst during the process:
This man, like many others, was in fact not guilty. “Knowingly” and “intent” are necessary elements of the charges, but most of the clients we interviewed did not even know what a Social Security number was or what purpose it served. This worker simply had the papers filled out for him at the plant, since he could not read or write Spanish, let alone English. But the lawyer still had to advise him that pleading guilty was in his best interest.... Caught between despair and hopelessness, he just wept.
The day after the raid, half of all students in the Postville school system were absent, including 90% of Latino students, because their parents were missing or in hiding. The school superintendent described the experience as akin to "a natural disaster -- only this one is manmade."
Our food system has a long and torrid relationship with undocumented workers, as I outlined in my first post on The Ethicurean a year ago. By definition, these workers are unable to defend themselves against unjust and inhumane treatment in their workplaces; many don't know their rights, have few advocates, and are afraid that any attempt to speak out will be met with deportation or imprisonment. In an industry obsessed with cutting costs, their disenfranchisement can be an asset. Giant meatpacking companies have been found to actively recruit or smuggle undocumented workers into their plants. The power of giant firms like Smithfield has been used to keep out unions that could expose unlawful working conditions. If their workers can't speak up, who's there to force them to comply with minimum wage, overtime, or job injury laws? Not the federal government, apparently. (See Marc's recent post for more info.)
There are many efforts to improve working conditions in the U.S. food system, including the Domestic Fair Trade initiative and the work of the Agricultural Justice Project. Perhaps for you, like me, the image of slaughterhouse workers being rounded up like cattle is enough to drive these efforts' importance home.
Photos by me, from a small-scale packing plant in Wisconsin that prides itself on fair treatment of workers, including the provision of living wages and health benefits.