The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

19th century work conditions in the 21st century

Aug 25, 2008

In the largest immigration raid in U.S. history, hundreds of immigration officials swept in and arrested 389 people at an Iowa kosher meatpacking plant, Agriprocessors. Most were charged with document fraud and sentenced to five months in prison; when they’re released, the government plans to deport them.

After the arrests, people in the community began protesting. Fifty-seven children came forward, testifying that they had been employed at the plant. Some were as young as 13. They had worked the night shift at the plant, for as long as 17 hours at a time, working with sharp knives at close quarters, cutting meat and poultry – and often themselves and others.

Most workers at the plant are paid $6 to $7 an hour. Many workers have lost fingers and hands. Many are undocumented – with the full knowledge of the company, which brings them into town, using their lack of legal status to control them, threatening to deport them. This fear of deportation torpedoed a union organizing drive a couple years ago.

These terrible working conditions have been known by U.S. authorities for years. Articles have been written about them in national papers. And yet, it was an immigration raid that was carried out in May, not a Labor Department raid. The workers working under these conditions were the ones arrested – not the owners and managers of the company.

More than half of Postville’s 2500 residents are Hispanic; more than one-tenth of them were arrested in the raid and await deportation. Some children were arrested in the raid, though their charges were dropped and they were released.

Many more children, though, have been left homeless, as their parents remain in jail awaiting deportation.

The town of Postville has been torn apart in these raids; in response, those left behind have been organizing protests, caring for the children left abandoned after the raid, and publicizing the conditions in this plant.

It was only after the demonstrations and publicity that Iowa state labor investigators “discovered” – almost three months after the raid, and years after the conditions in the plant were first reported – that Agriprocessors had committed multiple child labor law violations. Even now, the agency has only issued a report in which it recommended that the state attorney general bring charges against the company. But no charges have been filed yet.

It’s clear what the government thinks is truly illegal and worthy of arrest at these workplaces: holding false documents is; endangering the lives of children is not.