Big Meat's Dirty Little Secret: Few Jobs for Americans


Slaughterhouse conditions are rarely in the news—it’s bad for Big Meat’s image. However, it is safe to say that few to no Americans work as knockers, stickers, bleeders, tail rippers, flankers, gutters, sawers and plate boners in U.S. slaughterhouses. With very few exceptions, Americans simply won't work such dangerous slaughterhouse jobs that often pay as little as $6.25 to $7 an hour.

That is why in 2001, food giant Tyson was charged with paying smugglers to transport illegal workers to its operations from Mexico across the Rio Grande and supplying them with phony Social Security cards. More recently the largest immigration raid in U.S. history occurred at an Iowa slaughterhouse.

According to the New York Times, which studied the Smithfield slaughterhouse in Tar Heel, NC, turnover in slaughterhouse jobs is 100 percent. Even convicts given the right to leave their prison cells to work on the floor quit. Think about that.

In Big Meat's search for the lowest wages, Hispanic workers replaced Eastern European workers decades ago. More recently, Somalis, Sudanese and Pacific Islanders are replacing Hispanic workers. Even as the Trump administration bans Muslim immigrants, the JBS Swift plants in Greeley, CO and Grand Island, NE, Pilgrim’s Pride/Gold’n Plump plants in Cold Spring, MN and Arcadia, WI and Tyson Foods' Shelbyville, TN plant are largely populated by Muslim workers. Of course, this raises the question of how Americans are going to be able to afford their beloved hamburgers if the Trump administration succeeds with these bans, and whether Big Meat will protest.

Not that cheap meat does anyone any favors. Low-priced meat enables Americans to eat meat more frequently, putting them at risk for colorectal cancer, atherosclerosis, heart disease, stroke and type 2 (adult onset) diabetes.

Here is the story of how one slaughterhouse has continued to operate, despite a history of egregious worker and safety violations.

Cramped Apartments, Amputated Hands

On May 12, 2008, U.S. immigration officials conducted what is still the largest undocumented worker raid in U.S. history. At the Agriprocessors kosher slaughterhouse in Postville, IA (now Agri Star) 290 Guatemalans, 93 Mexicans, two Israelis and four Ukrainians were arrested. Hundreds of immigration officers swooped down on the small town with helicopters and waiting buses, marching half of the slaughterhouse’s 800-person workforce off to makeshift detention centers.

Initial charges against Agriprocessors included harboring illegal aliens, use of child labor, document fraud, identity theft, physical and sexual abuse of workers, unsafe working conditions, wage and hour violations and shorting workers' pay. According to the search warrant, 1,000 discrepancies between worker names and Social Security numbers occurred in three years and a meth production plant existed within the slaughterhouse, sanctioned by management. Nice. Even President Obama, then an Illinois senator, weighed in on Agriprocessors. "They have kids in there wielding buzz saws and cleavers. It's ridiculous," he said during a campaign stop in Davenport, Iowa.

The 2008 raid was not a shock to some. While Agriprocessors was periodically lauded for bringing a melting pot of foreign workers and Orthodox Jews to a small American town that needed the industry, groups promoting animal and human welfare had seen the storm clouds brewing for some time.

In 2004, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals released undercover video showing cows very much alive after being "slaughtered" and having their throats cut at Agriprocessors. The footage led to an USDA investigation that "reported many violations of animal cruelty laws at the plant," said the New York Times.

Soon after the video surfaced, the Forward visited Postville for a look at the "impoverished humans who do the factory's dirty work." In “a tour of the mobile homes and cramped apartments just outside town,” the newspaper found hundreds of immigrant employees working 10- to 12-hour shifts, six days a week for $6.25 to $7 an hour. Unable to quit, complain or even leave Postville (the tiny farm town has no public transportation), they were essentially indentured.

In addition to six Occupational Safety and Health Administration violations in one year, and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaints that Agriprocessors supervisors extorted bribes from workers, employees were untrained and unprotected from dangerous equipment, reported the Forward. Two workers required amputations in one month and one was still working at the plant with a hand missing when reporters visited, "hoping to collect enough to pay off his debts back home."

Within days of the raid, both Agriprocessors’ management and its workforce were in shambles. Three hundred workers were charged with identity theft. Agriprocessors' human resources managers and floor supervisors were convicted of felony charges of harboring illegal immigrants. Child labor charges were filed against Agriprocessors owner Aaron Rubashkin, his son Sholom and others plant employees, though they were dropped when prosecutors decided to pursue financial charges instead. Sholom Rubashkin was convicted of fabricating fake collateral for loans, ordering employees to create false invoices and laundering millions through a secret bank account in the name of Torah Education, reported the New York TimesSentencing documents also suggest the Postville mayor, Robert Penrod, received or extorted money from Agriprocessors to discourage unionizing at the plant.

But when prosecutors asked for a life sentence, citing Rubashkin’s lawlessness and lack of remorse, more than a dozen former United States attorneys cried to the judge, unfair! "We cannot fathom how truly sound and sensible sentencing rules could call for a life sentence, or anything close to it, for Mr. Rubashkin, a 51-year-old, first-time, nonviolent offender," said a letter signed by former attorney generals Janet Reno, William Barr, Richard Thornburgh, Edwin Meese III, Ramsey Clark and Nicholas Katzenbach. Non-violent, if you don’t count running a slaughterhouse that tortured live animals and amputations of workers’ hands.

Happy Ending for Cheap Meat

But the story had a happy ending—for the meat industry. Within months of the raid and before any Rubashkin trials, recruitment firms hired by Agriprocessors canvassed homeless shelters, bus stations, chapel services, and other slaughterhouses and ran ads in Spanish-language newspapers and on Mexican radio stations in the Rio Grande Valley to replenish the workforce. (One recruitment firm, Labor Ready, still had its doubts and recalled 150 workers days after placing them at Agriprocessors over "safety conditions.")

Meanwhile, after Agriprocessors declared bankruptcy in 2009, the plant got a new owner. Hershey Friedman, a Canadian businessman, bought Agriprocessors at auction and immediately rehired hundreds of original employees including a Rubashkin son, son-in-law and grandson. The slaughterhouse is now called Agri Star.

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