'I'm not sure these devout Jews are using Jewish ethics to treat their
The animals slaughtered here at the nation's largest kosher meat packing plant
have been the object of nationwide sympathy since an animal rights group released
videos from the kill floor in December 2004. But a tour of the mobile homes and
cramped apartments just outside town, where AgriProcessors' immigrant workers
live, quickly shifts a visitor's attention to a more striking concern: the impoverished
humans who do the factory's dirty work.
One of those workers — a woman who agreed to be identified by the pseudonym
Juana — came to this rural corner of Iowa a year ago from Guatemala. Since
then, she has worked 10-to-12-hour night shifts, six nights a week. Her cutting
hand is swollen and deformed, but she has no health insurance to have it checked.
She works for wages, starting at $6.25 an hour and stopping at $7, that several
industry experts described as the lowest of any slaughterhouse in the nation.
Juana and other employees at AgriProcessors — they total about 800 —
told the Forward that they receive virtually no safety training. This is an
anomaly in an industry in which the tools are designed to cut and grind through
flesh and bones. In just one month last summer, two young men required amputations;
workers say there have been others since. The chickens and cattle fly by at
a steady clip on metal hooks, and employees said they are berated for not working
fast enough. In addition, employees told of being asked to bribe supervisors
for better shifts and of being shortchanged on paychecks regularly.
"Being here, you see a lot of injustice," said Juana, who did not
want her real name used because of her precarious immigration status. "But
it's a small town. It's the only factory here. We have no choice."
AgriProcessors' final product — sold under the nationally popular Aaron's
Best brand — is priced significantly higher than standard meat. Its kosher
seal gives it a seeming moral imprimatur in an industry known for harsh working
conditions. But even in the unhappy world of meatpacking, people with comparative
knowledge of AgriProcessors and other plants — including local religious
leaders, professors, and union organizers — say that AgriProcessors stands
out for its poor treatment of workers.
"I deal with a lot of workers in slaughterhouses," said Dana Powell,
who lived in Postville for four months last fall while unsuccessfully attempting
to unionize the plant for the United Food and Commercial Workers. "If I
had to rate this one amongst all of them, of the different houses I've been
to, it's got to be the worst."
The manager of the plant, Sholom Rubashkin, said his industry is not a pleasant
one for workers, but he denied that the company mistreats its workers, shorts
their pay or condones bribery of any sort. Rubashkin, who is the son of the
Brooklyn-based owner, pointed to the failure of the union drive as evidence
of the workers' contentment.
He said that AgriProcessors offers health insurance if workers are willing
to contribute a sum that is close to $50 a week for family coverage. He has
set up an emergency fund for employees in trouble. Describing the hard work
his father had done on arriving in America from Europe in 1952, Rubashkin said:
"America has always been built by people who are coming to try to better
their economic position and are willing to do jobs that other people are not
willing to do. That's how this country is growing."
Spanish-speaking community leaders in Postville said that last year's union
drive failed for the same reason that the grievances have not been made public
before: The workers have a well-developed fear of being fired or deported. Many
of the workers are undocumented immigrants, according to numerous workers, community
leaders and the local priest.
"If you're not treated well at work, you tend to keep your mouth shut
and go deeper until it becomes, well, unbearable," said Father Floyd Paul
Ouderkirk, Postville's Roman Catholic priest. Ouderkirk previously had ministered
in other Iowa and Texas slaughterhouse towns. In those other plants, Ouderkirk
said, the workers had been less afraid to speak up and had labored in more tolerable
In a small town like Postville, where AgriProcessors is the largest economic
engine, workers have few places to turn beyond the three churches. Ouderkirk
retired from his full-time position two years ago. He has not been replaced,
but he returns to Postville regularly to celebrate Mass in Spanish — and
to hear complaints.
"They leave so much to be desired in the moral and ethical treatment of
workers," Ouderkirk said of AgriProcessors.
The company's business model has been economically successful. AgriProcessors
is the only kosher slaughterhouse in America producing both beef and poultry.
While AgriProcessors has been expanding steadily, its closest competitor in
the poultry industry, Empire Kosher, recently fired employees and cut back operations.
Union leaders at Empire Kosher said that the cutbacks were necessary because
Empire pays its lowest-ranking unionized employees close to $3 more an hour
from the outset than AgriProcessors' lowest employees, and provides full benefits.
Even among nonunion plants, experts say AgriProcessors' salaries are low.
"I have not heard of a six-dollar wage since I started working in Nebraska
in 1990," said Lourdes Gouveia, director of the Office of Latino Studies
at the University of Nebraska, where she studies working conditions in the meat
Not all the workers at AgriProcessors who spoke with the Forward hated their
jobs. Workers in the maintenance department, where more locals and non-Hispanic
immigrants are concentrated, start at $9 an hour. In the more plentiful menial
positions, a handful of employees said that with a good supervisor, work at
the plant was tolerable. One supervisor on the beef side, a Postville local,
recently married a Hispanic worker and is known as a friend of the entry-level
employees. But workers said that there were few standards and little transparency
at the plant.
The owner of AgriProcessors, Sholom's father, Aaron Rubashkin, has had trouble
with workers' rights before. In 1995, the National Labor Relations Board found
that he had violated labor laws at his textile mill in New Jersey. For months
on end, the mill had taken dues from the paychecks of union employees without
handing them over to the union — and had a "proclivity for violating"
the labor law, according to the NLRB judge.
The Rubashkins first set up shop in Postville in 1987, buying a defunct nonkosher
plant. The town drew national attention in 2000 when journalist Stephen Bloom
published his book, "Postville," describing the culture clash that
resulted when a group of Lubavitch Hasidim moved into a farming town of 1,500.
At the time, the hardest labor at the plant was performed by Eastern European
immigrants. Some complained to Bloom about working conditions.
But when Bloom was in town, workers willing to do AgriProcessors' menial work
were at a premium, and the Rubashkins would fly in workers from New York. That
changed as the Eastern Europeans were replaced by a flood of Hispanic immigrants,
who required little in the way of recruitment by the Rubashkins. Today, more
than half of Postville's 2,500 residents are Hispanic, according to most estimates.
Indeed, there is a widespread sense, as one 26-year-old man from Mexico said,
that "there is somebody outside waiting to take your job — so you
just keep working, or else."
The Hispanic immigrant workers are also less educated than the Eastern Europeans,
and several people who have dealt with both groups claimed that plant management
has given the newcomers less respect.
"They feel like they're not only treated unfairly, but treated as lesser
beings — as second-class citizens," said Caitlin Didier, who lived
in Postville for nine months in 2004 and interviewed more than 50 Hispanic workers
for her dissertation at the University of Kansas on ethnic cooperation in Postville.
A picture of the conditions at AgriProcessors emerged during a tour of the
plant. It is a modern facility with clean metallic walls and concrete floors;
as is typical in slaughterhouses, most of the rooms are cold and scattered with
stray bits of animal flesh.
In the room where chickens are killed, a few rabbis stand at the back, administering
the lethal cut. The bulk of the work is done by rows of Hispanic men and women
who grab the chickens by their feet and prepare them for death. While the rabbis
have their own bathrooms and well-lit cafeterias, which Rubashkin pointed out
on a tour, he declined to show the Forward the separate facilities for the workers,
which were described to the paper as damp and dirty.
One person who saw all this up close was the investigator for the animal rights
group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, who shot the notorious video
footage of the slaughtering process. He said that the cafeteria at AgriProcessors
was in a lower class than the carpeted, climate-controlled cafeterias at the
nonkosher slaughterhouses where he has worked, while investigating undercover,
in Arkansas and North Carolina.
At those nonkosher slaughterhouses, the PETA investigator said, he received
significantly more safety training: a minimum of two days, while AgriProcessors
only gave him one hour — with a supervisor who did not speak Spanish.
The investigator said he ended up translating for the other trainees, all of
whom were Hispanic. In addition, the PETA investigator — who agreed to
speak with the Forward only if he could do so anonymously — said that
when workers were injured or sick, supervisors at AgriProcessors showed little
concern and were reluctant to provide access to the company's doctor.
"At the other two, they were more compassionate if an individual was hurt,"
he said. "At Agri, they'd be more concerned about losing money than the
Rubashkin said that the company has instituted dual-language training, though
he declined to say how long the training is. He also said the company is in
the midst of building a new cafeteria for workers.
Workers and their advocates say that many tough out the conditions in Postville
because they need the money — often to pay back the smugglers who brought
them over the border. No less significant, Postville has no public transportation
into or out of town, and few immigrant workers can secure driver's licenses
to escape the isolated community. There used to be a turkey processing plant
in Postville, where locals say the conditions were better, but it burned to
the ground on Christmas Eve 2003.
One of the workers, a chubby Guatemalan who agreed to go by the pseudonym Manuel,
said that he paid a smuggler $4,500 to help him sneak across the Mexican border
a year ago. He purchased a Social Security number for $100 in Illinois, and
within a few days he had landed a job at AgriProcessors.
Manuel lives in a bare apartment with four other single young men from Guatemala,
all of them undocumented immigrants. They have two beat-up couches with cushions
that sink to the floor. The carpets are stained and a television sits on the
box in which it came. The only decoration is a calendar from Postville's Mexican
restaurant, Sabor Latino, which hangs askew on the window moulding.
On Manuel's first day, he said, he found himself slicing up chicken carcasses
without even receiving the hour-long orientation that other workers had described.
"There's no training," he said. "You learn by getting chewed
Now, Manuel arrives each day at 4:45 a.m. Although the Supreme Court decided
last year that meatpacking plants must pay their workers for donning and doffing
— dressing and undressing before and after work — Manuel and the
union organizers who lived in Postville said that the workers are not allowed
to punch in until they take their positions on the line. Rubashkin responded
by saying that the company did change the rules when the Supreme Court ruling
Manuel works 10-hour days in the chicken department. Lunch breaks are 30 minutes,
but after taking on and off the bloody smocks and masks at the beginning and
end, there is closer to 15 minutes' time left for eating. Dozens of workers
on a shift share the cafeteria, and the workers say there are only three microwaves,
which short-circuit when used simultaneously.
"I've said, 'Why do you treat us like this?'" Manuel said. "We're
human beings, not animals."
Manuel came from a religious family in Guatemala, but he rarely has time for
observance. AgriProcessors does not slow down for Sundays or for any Christian
holidays, except Christmas. A more practical problem, however, arises on Jewish
holidays, when the plant closes and the workers are not paid.
Pay is a recurring complaint from AgriProcessors' workers. Manuel makes $7.25
an hour, having moved up from $6.25. But Manuel and many other workers said
that their weekly paychecks come up three or four hours short regularly, a claim
that the union organizers reported hearing frequently. When supervisors are
alerted, they promise to correct things but rarely do, workers and union officials
"They are being taken advantage of," said Powell, the union organizer.
"You could tell these workers wanted help but they were so scared and beat
down by this company."
But Manuel said he counts himself lucky when he sees the workers who have had
fingers amputated and worse. One friend of his lost a hand last summer when
a machine he was cleaning suddenly whirred to life. Manuel and many other workers
said that the young man is now back at the plant, working half time and still
hoping to collect enough to pay off his debts back home.
The fascination with the unseen world of slaughterhouses is long standing, extending
from Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle" a century ago to a Human Rights
Watch report last year. That study found that the industry has the highest levels
of injury of any manufacturing industry, and said the workers "contend
with treatment and conditions that violate their human rights."
Kosher plants occupy a small, seldom scrutinized corner of the overall meat
market. In the chicken industry, kosher companies slaughter less than 1% of
the 33 million birds killed each day. There are five kosher poultry slaughterhouses
in America besides AgriProcessors, according to industry experts. But Empire
Kosher, in northern Pennsylvania, is AgriProcessors' only major competitor.
Kosher beef is mostly supplied by firms that send rabbis into nonkosher slaughterhouses
to kill selected animals. Hebrew National, the biggest national brand of kosher
beef, does not produce the glatt kosher standard now demanded by most Orthodox
Because of market size, kosher plants have escaped the scrutiny of labor conditions
that the larger industry has received. A number of experts in the area, including
the author of the Human Rights Watch report, said they had assumed that conditions
were better in kosher slaughterhouses because they operate in a premium market
under the supervision of clergymen.
"My totally unexamined assumption was that good Orthodox Jews would probably
have a different ethos for treatment of their workers," said Gouveia, the
Empire Kosher has had its own troubles in the past. In 2001, immigration officials
raided the plant and arrested 135 undocumented immigrants, according to news
In the kosher certification process, working conditions are not a factor, according
to the largest certifying agency, the Orthodox Union. But at AgriProcessors'
biggest competitors, Empire and Hebrew National, there is a union regulating
wages and grievances.
When it comes to outside regulatory agencies, the Occupational Safety and Health
Administration have tagged AgriProcessors this year with six violations. That
amounts to more than half the violations in all Iowa meatpacking plants during
that time, according to OSHA statistics.
The outside agency that Postville community leaders most remember is the Equal
Employment Opportunity Commission, which came to town in 2003. The agency would
not comment on the incident, but Rubashkin acknowledged that it was responding
to complaints that a supervisor in the chicken department was demanding bribes
Community leaders say that Hispanic workers were too afraid to speak with the
EEOC. The supervisor remains at the plant today, and union officials and workers
said that while he no longer demands outright bribes, he now tells workers to
buy a car from him if they want a better shift or have a relative hired.
Rubashkin said the charges were completely unfounded.
"Him buying a car or selling a car has nothing to do with hiring,"
Rubashkin said of the supervisor in question.
Another outside agency that sought to intervene was the United Food and Commercial
Workers, the union that represents Empire Kosher workers. Two union organizers
arrived in Postville last July. One of them, Powell, said the campaign began
to unravel at about the same time workers in the plant told him that supervisors
were having meetings at which they threatened to fire workers or refer them
to immigration officials if a union was formed.
Rubashkin denied that there was any intimidation. "We explained to people
what a union does — how they get in power and do what they want,"
In the end, the union could not even find a space in town to hold an organizing
meeting. One was scheduled in the Catholic church, but the church leadership
was pressured to cancel it, according to numerous people close to the situation.
Mark Grey, a professor at a local university who studies immigrant labor at
slaughterhouses, said that even after five years of coming to talk with workers
at AgriProcessors, he is still caught off-guard by the severity with which workers
"I'm continually surprised at how poorly they treat these people because
they're not Jews and because they happen to be immigrants," said Grey,
director of the Iowa Center for Immigrant Leadership and Integration. The center
is based at the University of Northern Iowa, in Cedar Falls.
"The bottom line here is that I'm not sure these devout Jews are using
Jewish ethics to treat their workers," he added.