The New York Times has a blunt editorial today about the terrible working conditions at the Agriprocessors plant in Postville, Iowa, which include child labor and incredibly long, arduous, and unsafe work shifts, as well as the brutal treatment of hundreds of undocumented immigrants who were working there by immigration officials and prosecutors.
Agriprocessors is a major supplier of kosher meats nationwide, owned by the Rubashkin family, which is why it is particularly amusing to consult the company's Web site. Here we read about Agriprocessors' service to its local community and the high standards and values it upholds. From its "Code of Conduct":
Honesty, fairness and respect for others are the principles which guide us, and the best way to be successful in business. Whether dealing with fellow employees, customers, vendors, or regulators, Agriprocessors, Inc. is committed to these principles and compliance with applicable laws and regulations. Agriprocessors has adopted this Code of Conduct to demonstrate this commitment. The Code of Conduct applies to all employees, including the highest levels of management of the company.
Now here is a snippet from the Times editorial:
A slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa, develops an ugly reputation for abusing animals and workers. Reports of dirty, dangerous conditions at the Agriprocessors kosher meatpacking plant accumulate for years, told by workers, union organizers, immigrant advocates and government investigators. A videotape by an animal-rights group shows workers pulling the windpipes out of living cows. A woman with a deformed hand tells a reporter of cutting meat for 12 hours a day, six days a week, for wages that labor experts call the lowest in the industry. This year, federal investigators amass evidence of rampant illegal hiring at the plant, which has been called “a kosher ‘Jungle.’ ”
A "kosher Jungle." By the way, Agriprocessors' Web site also brags about its commitment to environmental protection of its community. That's why it is strange to read this in a 2004 Department of Justice complaint against the company:
The Department of Justice and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced today the filing of a civil action against AgriProcessors, Inc., a meat packaging plant in Postville, Iowa. The complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa, alleges that AgriProcessors has committed Clean Water Act violations by failing to comply with pretreatment requirements for its wastewater going into a lagoon treatment system owned by the City of Postville and then discharged into the Yellow River.
More insights into how Agriprocessors goes about its business can be found in a National Geographic story a few years ago. And all this time, as the company Web site makes clear, rabbis have been crawling all over the place--making sure, of course, that the meat is kosher. They might also have spent some of their time making sure the plant was humane, to people and to animals. But some Jews have forgotten that Judaism is not just about avoiding pork and stealing land from Palestinians, but also a system of ethics and values. That's why it is heartening to read the blog of Rabbi Amy Eilberg and her account of a visit to Postville, which I would urge you to look at. Here is part of what she and others in her group found:
The list of abuses grew more and more chilling. There was a regular pattern of managers extorting money from the impoverished immigrants, by insisting that a worker buy a car on credit from the manager as a condition of employment, creating a kind of indentured servitude. Managers regularly humiliated workers and occasionally struck them. We were told that sexual favors were demanded of female workers, in exchange for work or better work assignments, and we learned that from 40-80 teenagers, age 14-16, worked illegally in the plant, facilitated by a business partner of the plant's owner. We were told that "everyone knew" of the rampant abuses, yet workers who dared to approach the owners to report on abuses at the plant were fired. An atmosphere of intense fear, harassment, and dehumanization prevailed.
And in one of the most heartening parts of her post, Amy declares that the meat from Agriprocessors is no longer kosher:
Until we know that the plant has corrected the many wrongs inflicted on the workers, the meat and poultry from this plant cannot be considered to be kosher in any but the most narrow sense. The Conservative Movement has advised its members to "to evaluate whether it is appropriate to consume Rubashkin products until this situation is addressed” and the Hekhsher Tzedek initiative is moving forward in its plan to supplement traditional kashrut supervision with certification of a producer’s employment practices, including wages and benefits, health and safety, environmental impact, and corporate transparency.
And Amy insists that immigration reform is a Jewish issue too:
Good-hearted people can surely disagree about exactly what must be done to repair our nation's broken immigration system. But one thing is certain: pleading ignorance to the injustices that are committed against immigrant workers to support our familiar ways of eating is no longer an option. The veil has been lifted, and we now know clearly (as many had warned before) that consumption that we consider a normal feature of our life as Americans and as American Jews is intimately related to desperate poverty in Central and South America and to American trade and immigration policy. Thus immigration reform is a Jewish issue, a humanitarian issue, an urgent advocacy issue for all thoughtful Americans. We have not accepted "We didn't know" or even "We didn't know what to do" as an excuse when it has been used by those who acted against us. The Torah calls to us with painful clarity, "Al ta'amod al dam rei'echa," "Do not stand idly by as your neighbor's blood is shed."
And she concludes:
Once we could claim we did not know, but no longer. These acts of theft were committed in our names. We are complicit and so we are responsible. The Torah calls out for verbal confession of sins and restitution to those who are wronged. The call for teshuva here applies not only to the direct perpetrators, but to all of us who literally ate the fruits of their sins.
I hope to meet Rabbi Amy Eilberg one day. She reminds me that I was once proud to be a Jew.
PS--If you want to read a thoroughly racist but nevertheless somewhat illuminating account of what has gone on in Postville, check this out. It might not make you very proud to be an American, however. And here is more very interesting information about the relationship between ethics and keeping kosher, with more too about Agriprocessors, on a blog run by Rabbi Morris Allen.
Update: Apparently a large Jewish protest was held in Postville, it appears yesterday. Lots of details here.
Update (August 6): The New York Times reports today that Iowa labor investigators have asked the state's attorney general to bring charges against Agriprocessors for violation of child labor laws. The paper also features an opinion piece by a member of the Rabbinical Council of America arguing that working conditions are relevant to a kosher certification and criticizing some Orthodox groups for reacting too slowly to the scandal.
Update (August 23): The New York Times features an update on this story, including a visit to Agriprocessors by a rabbinical delegation that gave the plant, surprise, a clean bill of health, and dirty tricks by a PR firm hired by the company to improve its image.