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October 2008 Volume 14 Number 4
Meat: Agriprocessors, Tyson, JBS
In FY07, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency arrested 4,940 migrants in workplace raids and made 863 criminal arrests. In FY08, ICE expects to make over 5,000 workplace arrests, and a higher share are expected to include criminal charges.<< back
The rising number of workplace arrests has fueled criticism that immigration enforcement is mostly against unauthorized workers, not the managers who hire them. In response, ICE noted that it expects to make over 1,000 work-related criminal arrests in FY08, including at least 10 percent company supervisors with authority to hire and fire workers.
Agriprocessors. A May 12, 2008 raid at Agriprocessors in Postville, Iowa resulted in the arrest of 389 workers. Within eight days, 297 of the mostly Guatemalan workers who were arrested pleaded guilty to federal criminal charges that resulted in five-month sentences for knowingly using Social Security cards or legal residence documents that belonged to others to get jobs at Agriprocessors. Prosecutors warned the arrested workers that, if they did not plead guilty, they would be charged with aggravated identity theft, which carries a mandatory two-year sentence.
This rush to judgment was criticized by migrant advocates who argued that the illiterate migrants did not understand that they were pleading guilty to criminal charges. The Department of Justice prepared a manual before the Agriprocessors raid that laid out scripts for judges and prosecutors to follow.
A July 24, 2008 hearing before the House Judiciary Committee's immigration subcommittee featured testimony from one of the 12 interpreters at the Agriprocessors trial. He asserted that the Guatemalans did not understand they were pleading guilty to criminal charges. Defense attorneys each represented 17 arrested workers, workers pleaded guilty in groups of 10, and were sentenced in groups of five. The government's plea offer was good for only seven days; many of the workers' attorneys advised their clients to plead guilty.
Six weeks after the raid, ICE arrested two Agriprocessors managers, citing worker testimony that they sold unauthorized workers the IDs and SSNs for $200 that were required to be hired; false resident-alien cards were found in the plant's office. The managers first asked the federal judge who approved the speedy prosecution of Agriprocessors' workers to recuse herself from presiding over their cases, but one manager pleaded guilty in August 2008 to conspiring to hire unauthorized workers.
The United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which has tried to organize the plant said: "The arrest of two low-level supervisors, while a start, barely scratches the surface of this company's bad behavior."
Agriprocessors bad behavior became evident as DOL stepped up its investigation of labor practices after the raid. Some of the immigrants who were arrested provided declarations saying that the firm knew they were not 18, the minimum age to work in Iowa meatpacking plants. Iowa's attorney general in September 2008 filed over 9,000 criminal misdemeanor charges against Agriprocessors for employing 32 teens aged 14-17 at the plant. Agriprocessors said that the teens lied about their age, and that the number of charges was inflated because each day of underage employment was a charge. Most of the unauthorized teens are hoping to obtain U-immigrant visas available to those who cooperate with prosecutors in cases of exploitive labor conditions.
After the raid, Agriprocessors turned to Jacobson Staffing Company to obtain workers and raised starting wages to $10 an hour. According to an AP report, Jacobson provided 900 workers to Agriprocessors between June 1 and August 1, 2008, but only 480 were still employed on August 1, 2008. Jacobson uses its own ads as well as other recruiters to find workers and uses E-Verify to screen new hires. Some recruiters brought Somalis from Minneapolis to Postville, Iowa. Bravo Labor Agency of McAllen, Texas reported sending 200 workers from the Rio Grande Valley to Agriprocessors. Temp firm Labor Ready, owned by True Blue, stopped supplying workers to Agriprocessors after some of the first 150 workers it sent complained of unsafe working conditions.
On July 27, 2008, a protest calling for legalization and better treatment for workers at Agriprocessors drew 1,000 people in Postville, a town of 2,200 that reportedly includes workers from 24 countries speaking 17 languages.
The UFCW won an election at a small Agriprocessors plant in Queens, New York on a 15-5 vote in 2005. The NLRB certified the UFCW as the workers' bargaining representative, but Agriprocessors refused to recognize the UFCW, saying that after the vote it discovered that almost all of the Queens workers were unauthorized and fired them. The NLRB, citing the 1984 Sure-Tan vs. NLRB decision, concluded that Agriprocessors violated labor laws by firing unauthorized workers in retaliation for their pro-union vote. The US Court of Appeals upheld the NLRB; Agriprocessors is appealing that decision to the Supreme Court.
ICE apprehended even more unauthorized workers on August 25, 2008 at Howard Industries in Laurel, Mississippi. In what was billed as ICE's largest workplace enforcement operation at one workplace, some 595 workers were arrested at the manufacturer of electrical distribution equipment, including eight charged with criminal identity theft. Howard, which employs 4,000 workers, said it participated in the E-Verify program to check the legal status of new hires; no managers were arrested.
Some residents of Laurel, a city of 25,000 (up from 18,000 in 2000 because of Latino immigration), welcomed the raid, saying that the influx of immigrants had allowed Howard to hold down wages.
ABM Janitorial Services instructed 42 cleaners to report to its offices near Philadelphia on July 31, 2008, where ICE agents who had audited ABM's employment forms were waiting to arrest them. The Service Employees International Union decried ABM's role in tricking workers to report to a place ICE agents were waiting for them, while ICE praised ABM for cooperating with its enforcement efforts. ICE in August 2008 arrested 59 unauthorized workers at Mills Manufacturing, a North Carolina producer of military parachutes.
Tyson. The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which represents many Somali workers at Tyson's Shelbyville, Tennessee poultry processing plant, substituted the Muslim holiday of Id al-Fitr for Labor Day as a paid holiday. The plant normally operates on Labor Day, but had to close on Id al-Fitr in 2007 when a third of workers did not report. Id al-Fitr, often abbreviated to Eid, is a Muslim holiday that marks the end of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting.
Tyson bought beef and pork processor IBP Inc in 2001. The US Department of Labor sued IBP's Holcomb, Kansas plant in 1988 for not compensating workers for the time spent "donning and doffing" specialized protective clothing and work gear? time spent putting on standard hard hats and safety eyewear is not compensable, but the time spent dealing specialized protections is paid by the employer.
Donning and duffing is a perennial issue in meatpacking. The Bush administration issued letters in 2002 and 2007 asserting that donning and doffing protective safety equipment used in the meatpacking industry is not compensable activity. On the basis of these letters, a federal judge in Mississippi agreed with Sara Lee subsidiary Bryan Foods Inc that two employees were not entitled to pay for the time required to don specialized protective equipment. The workers argued that DOL letters in 1997 and 2001 made donning and duffing personal protective clothing compensable. The judge agreed with Bryan Foods that the more recent DOL letters were clear, and that the workers filing suit could not recover back wages.
JBS. Sao Paulo-based JBS SA has become one of the world's largest processors of red meat, operating in 22 countries and surpassing Minnesota-based Cargill in sales. JBS, the initials of founder Jos‚ Batista Sobrinho, has been buying distressed meatpacking companies around the world--higher feed prices combined with more cattle being slaughtered put the industry in a cost-price squeeze.
Beef production has traditionally been a national business. JBS hopes that by operating in many countries, it can offset losses in one country with gains in another. JBS began to expand beyond Brazil only recently, buying Argentine meatpacker Swift Amour in 2005. As the Brazilian real appreciated, foreign meatpackers became cheaper, encouraging further expansion abroad.
US meatpacker Swift & Co was raided by immigration inspectors on December 12, 2006. The resulting turmoil cost the struggling meatpacker an estimated $50 million, prompting the sale to JBS for $225 million plus the assumption of $1.2 billion of debt. In March 2008, JBS announced plans to buy the fourth and fifth largest US beef packers, National Beef Packing and Smithfield Beef? when the deal is completed, JBS will control 30 percent of the US beef market.
JBS-Swift fired about 80 Somali workers at its Grand Island, Nebraska plant for leaving work to protest insufficient time to pray during Ramadan, a month-long period of fasting between sunrise and sunset that in 2008 occurred in September. Some 500 Somali workers on the second shift asked that the dinner break be made earlier, at 7:45pm, non-Somali workers protested, and when the dinner break was restored to its normal later time, the fired workers walked off the job.
There was a similar dispute at JBS-Swift's plant in Greeley, Colorado in September 2008 that led to the firing of 111 workers. JBS-Swift restarted the second shift in late 2007 to gain economies of scale by slaughtering more cattle. The United Food and Commercial Workers represents workers at both plants.
Omaha-based Nebraska Beef has had a contentious relationship with regulators. Its ground beef was implicated in E. coli illnesses affecting Boy Scouts in summer 2008, leading to recalls. In 2002-03, USDA meat inspectors shut the Nebraska Beef plant, which employs 800 workers to slaughter 2,000 cattle a day, three times for sanitation violations. In response, Nebraska Beef sued USDA, telling a judge that another USDA-ordered shutdown would put it out of business.
There were more problems at Nebraska Beef in 2004 and 2005, and USDA threatened to shut down the plant in 2006 for failing to keep parts of animals that could transmit BSE out of ground meat. Nebraska Beef's main owner is William Hughes, who once worked at BeefAmerica, another plant with sanitation problems. Nebraska provided $7.5 million in tax credits under its Quality Jobs Act to help launch Nebraska Beef. In addition to disputes with USDA over sanitation, the firm has been cited for safety violations and for interfering with a union organizing drive.
Chicken. ICE agents raided House of Raeford's Columbia Farms chicken processing plant in Greenville, South Carolina on October 7, 2008, arresting 300 workers. Earlier in 2008, ICE arrested 11 supervisors at the plant, charging 11 of them, all Mexican men, with aggravated identity theft and making false statements. In July 2008, the human resources manager was arrested for filing false I-9 employment identification forms.
Pilgrim's Pride, the largest US chicken company, saw its stock price drop sharply in Fall 2008 due to rising feed prices. Pilgrim's, which bought rival Gold Kist for about $1 billion in 2006 and has a high debt load, closed some plants and laid off workers. Chicken prices have stayed relatively low partly because pork prices have stayed low; chicken prices tend to track pork prices.
"Slaughterhouse charged with using child labor," AP, September 10, 2008. Annys Shin and Ylan Q. Mui, "Whole Foods Recalls Beef Processed At Plant Long at Odds With USDA," Washington Post, August 10, 2008. Lauren Etter and John Lyons, "Brazilian Beef Clan Goes Global," Wall Street Journal, August 1, 2008. Bloom, Stephen. Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America.