Agriprocessors child-labor trial starts this week

By GRANT SCHULTE • gschulte@… • May 3, 2010

Immigrants who were allegedly exposed to poisonous chemicals and dangerous machinery as minors will testify against their former bosses at Agriprocessors Inc. in a state child-labor trial that begins this week in Waterloo.

The trial is the latest chapter in the two-year saga of Sholom Rubashkin and his former eastern Iowa kosher slaughterhouse. Prosecutors allege that Rubashkin, 50, and other top managers allowed underage workers to perform risky jobs and work excessive hours at the plant in violation of state law.

Also on trial are Abraham Aaron Rubashkin, the family patriarch who founded the Postville slaughterhouse; former human resources director Elizabeth Billmeyer; Jeffrey Heasley, a supervisor in the beef department; and human resources employees Karina Freund and Laura Althouse.

All have pleaded not guilty. Jury selection for the scheduled three-week trial begins Tuesday in Black Hawk County District Court.

Advocates for the workers hope the trial exposes the scope of alleged child-labor abuses and sheds new light on Sholom Rubashkin, who drew hundreds of fellow Chabad-Lubavitch Jews to his federal court hearings on financial fraud charges. Defense attorneys cast the former meatpacking mogul as a deeply religious family man who was trying to keep his father’s business afloat.
“Sholom has put a considerable amount of money and energy lately into having people defend his character,” said the Rev. Paul Ouderkirk, retired pastor at St. Bridget’s Catholic Church in Postville. “But when you hear what really went on at the plant, you lose sympathy.”

Ouderkirk said most of the underage workers have since turned 18 but are frightened that they have to testify. Most are native Guatemalans who were detained and deported in the May 2008 immigration raid at Agriprocessors, which now operates under new ownership as Agri Star.

“We’re expecting a very vigorous attack on these kids,” Ouderkirk said. “We’re praying hard for them, because they’re scared out of their wits.”

The workers were summoned back to Iowa by state prosecutors, with help from a Guatemalan filmmaker who has followed the case, Ouderkirk said. Ouderkirk said prosecutors have arranged transportation for the workers from Postville and Decorah.

Billmeyer, Althouse, Freund and the Rubashkins each face 9,201 misdemeanor child-labor charges, court records show. Heasley is charged with 844 violations. Each count carries a maximum 30-day jail sentence and a fine as large as $625.

Prosecutors with the Iowa attorney general’s office say the underage workers were exposed to chlorine solutions, dry ice and other potentially dangerous substances. Some were employed to operate power-driven machinery such as conveyor belts, meat grinders, circular saws, power washers and power shears.

Some workers who were younger than 16 staffed shifts that started before 7 a.m. and ended after 7 p.m., according to court records. All of the underage workers claimed they were not paid for every hour of overtime.

A 15-year-old girl told authorities that a supervisor sexually harassed her in a part of the plant where chickens are cut up, then gave her extra work when she refused to submit to his advances.

Ouderkirk said one former underage employee worked with chemicals so toxic that he vomited every day into a coffee can.

“Every day he went to work, he knew this was going to happen,” Ouderkirk said.

Another underage worker, Ana Cecilia Arugello, told The Des Moines Register in August 2008 that she often cut her hands in the organic-chicken department and worked 12-hour shifts six days a week. Her training, she said, amounted to a 20-minute video the day she was hired.

Arugello is among the 48 potential prosecution witnesses on a list that includes former line workers, supervisors and federal immigration agent Mike Fischels, a lead investigator from the raid.

Defense attorneys signaled in court papers that they might cast blame on the state labor agents who launched their investigation in January 2008.

Sholom Rubashkin was convicted of 86 financial fraud charges in a separate federal trial in November. He was moved to the Linn County Jail for a sentencing hearing last week in Cedar Rapids, and now heads to Black Hawk County for his state trial.

His attorney, F. Montgomery Brown, alleged in court papers that state labor investigators identified the underage workers in April 2008 – one month before the immigration raid – but refused to share their names with plant managers.

Brown said many of the underage workers applied for jobs with fake birth certificates, which created a “legal Catch-22” for Agriprocessors:

Plant managers could not have known which workers were underage, Brown argued. At the same time, he said, the managers had no legal right “to guess at ages or fire employees en masse on mere suspicion.”

Prosecutors disputed the claim. State investigators did not know which workers were minors until September 2008 and were stonewalled by plant managers, two assistant attorneys general, Laura Roan and Thomas H. Miller, argued in court documents.

A line supervisor helped hide at least one underage worker when investigators visited on April 3, 2008, the prosecutors alleged. Freund, the human resources employee, allegedly told two other minors that they didn’t have to cooperate and encouraged them to lie about their ages.

“Particularly in light of what is now known of defendants’ efforts to obstruct the investigation, it would have been irresponsible for (state investigators) to have made such a disclosure,” Roan and Miller wrote.

Black Hawk County District Associate Judge Nathan Callahan ruled for the prosecution in February and refused to dismiss the charges.