Agriprocessors Trial: Underage Workers Describe BRUTAL Working Conditions At Iowa Plant

MICHAEL J. CRUMB | 05/10/10 06:59 PM |

WATERLOO, Iowa — A former underage worker cried Monday while testifying she was exposed to harsh chemicals at an Iowa slaughterhouse where she and other teens worked 12 hours a day, six days a week.

Yesenia Cordero Mendoza, now 18, was one of two former underage workers to testify against former manager Sholom Rubashkin, who faces 83 child labor violation charges stemming from a May 2008 raid at the plant in which 389 illegal immigrants, including 31 children, were detained. It’s the second trial for Rubashkin, who awaits sentencing in a separate federal financial fraud case that followed the raid at the former Agriprocessors slaughterhouse in Postville.

Mendoza began crying while testifying about the raid and the arrest of her boyfriend and other workers.

“I don’t want to remember it,” she told prosecutors through a translator.

She testified she was 15 when she used false documents to get hired at the slaughterhouse. It was common knowledge that the plant hired minors, so she forged documents that gave her age as older, and plant officials never asked for any other identification to verify it, she said. When government inspectors came to the plant, underage workers were sent home, she said.

Mendoza and Rony Ordonez Capir, who was 16 when hired, said the work involved harsh chemicals that burned their eyes, hands and throats.

Ordonez said he cut meat using hooks and knives and washed down conveyor belts with bleach and chlorine. Mendoza testified she measured the temperature of meat packaged with dry ice.

Ordonez, who is now 20, said he received no formal training and learned how to do his job by watching his co-workers. He said he was cut and injured several times on the job, and workers frequently slipped and fell because of animal fat and grease on the floor.

He said he began work at 4 a.m. and would work 12 hours or more. When asked when he didn’t complain about the ill-effects from the chemicals he used, he said, “If I told them, they wouldn’t listen.”

Each child labor charge is a simple misdemeanor that carries a potential penalty of $625 and 30 days in prison.
Rubashkin likely faces a longer sentence in the financial fraud case. Prosecutors asked a judge last month to sentence him to 25 years in prison. The judge has not yet made a decision.

During opening statements earlier Monday, attorneys argued over how much Rubashkin knew about the teens – at least one as young as 13 – working at the plant.

Assistant Iowa Attorney General Laura Roan told jurors all the children were working with false documents.

“Everyone remained willfully blind to the age and legal status of the applicants,” she said. “That’s what the evidence will show.”

Rubashkin’s attorney, F. Montgomery Brown, called the plant’s hiring process flawed and dysfunctional but said prosecutors needed to prove more than bad management to get a conviction. He said they had to show Rubashkin wanted minors working at the plant.

“Negligence, bad management, that’s not going to cut it,” Brown said. “Not one witness will tell you Sholom Rubashkin wanted them there.”

He also said letters from Agriprocessors’ attorneys to federal immigration officials indicated the company knew the 2008 raid was coming and offered their full cooperation.

“If (Rubashkin) knew there were minors in the plant,” he said, “would not a reasonable person have told somebody to get them out of there before ICE got there?”


Young workers describe physical meatpacking jobs

By JENS MANUEL KROGSTAD • jkrogstad@… • May 11, 2010

Waterloo, Ia. — Rony O. Ordoñez Capir stood in the middle of the courtroom and faced the jury to demonstrate his job as a beef cutter at Agriprocessors.

Ordoñez Capir, now 20, was the first witness in the child labor trial of Sholom Rubashkin, a former executive at Agriprocessors, a slaughterhouse in Postville. Rubashkin faces 83 child-labor charges.

Around 5 feet tall, Ordoñez Capir demonstrated quick, exact movements for the jury that he repeated over and over. the Guatemalan thrust a meat hook into an imaginary 40-pound rib with his left hand, and used a knife to repeatedly slash the slab of meat with the right.

Ordoñez Capir told the jury that he began working at Agriprocessors when he was 16 and that he usually cut about three pieces a meat per minute, during shifts that typically stretched from 4 a.m. to 4 p.m., six days a week.

It was conditions like these, and dozens of pictures of baby-faced Hispanic workers taken the day of a May 12, 2008, federal immigration raid at the plant, that provided the backbone for the prosecution’s opening statements Monday. Some workers were as young as 13 when they were hired, prosecutors said.

“This did not happen in a Third World country,” said Laura Roan, assistant Iowa attorney general. “It happened in Iowa. This man is guilty of all the crimes charged because we say, “Not in Iowa. Not here.’ ”

Rubashkin’s attorneys repeatedly said the underage workers lied to the plant about their age and purchased fake documents to gain employment.

They said Rubashkin did not personally oversee employee hiring and did not know how hard the supervisors worked the line workers.

Ordoñez Capir said supervisors slowed the line down significantly and did not yell or berate workers when rabbis who supervised kosher meat production or other visitors passed through the plant.

Defense attorney F. Montgomery Brown said a vast array of forces converged on Agriprocessors — including the government, union organizers and the local Catholic church — making it impossible for the plant to keep any activities at the plant a secret.

Plus, he said, the Rubashkin family and its lawyers knew a raid was imminent. On May 8, 2008, company attorneys sent a letter to the federal government volunteering to cooperate with its investigation.

“I want you to think about this simple proposition,” Brown said. “If (Rubashkin) knew there were any minors in the plant, would not a reasonable person have told somebody to get them out of there before (federal agents) arrived?”

In opening statements, the prosecution offered more details of underage workers’ experiences at the plant. They said children’s oversized protective frocks would get caught on conveyer belts, dragging them down the kill line. They also described how youngsters sliced beef carcasses in half with electric saws, and ripped gizzards and pulled feathers from chickens.

Yesenia Cordero Mendoza, now 18, told the jury how disinfecting meat thermometers with industrial cleaners caused her skin to peel.

She wiped her eyes with a tissue, and gasped once to hold back sobs when prosecutors asked her about the day federal agents raided Agriprocessors.

“Why does that day cause you such sadness?” deputy attorney general Thomas H. Miller asked.

“I don’t want to even remember it,” she responded.

Mendoza, who is Mexican, said she was 16 and in ninth grade when she dropped out of school to work at Agriprocessors several months before the raid. Mendoza, who at the time was pregnant with a second child, said she took the job to support her young daughter.

Testimony of additional former workers is scheduled to continue today.


Attorneys lay out cases in Agriprocessors child labor trial
Posted on May 10, 2010 by admin.

Sholom Rubashkin walks to the U.S. Courthouse in Sioux Falls, S.D. in October 2009. (AP)

UPDATED: Prosecutors in the state’s child labor trial against former Agriprocessors executive Sholom Rubashkin started their case by introducing jurors to children who worked at the postville plant.

Assistant Attorney General Laura Roan flashed photos of the teens, outlining when they started at the Postville meat packing operation and detailing what they did.

There was Elizandaro Gomez Lopez, who was 16 when he began working at Agriprocessors. He used electric sheers to process chickens.

It was fast work, Roan said, and Gomez was pushed to process 90 chickens a minute.

Henry Lopez Calel worked there twice, once at age 14 and again at 16.

The names and photos went on until the state made its way through the 31 minors who held jobs at the kosher slaughterhouse. Roan said many worked with electric saws and dry ice, and it was rare that they worked fewer than 40 hours in a week.

Many worked 16 hours a day, six days a week, she said.

This didn’t happen in a third-world country, it happened in Iowa, Roan told jurors.

“This man is guilty of all of the crimes because we say `not in Iowa. Not here,'” Roan said.

Defense attorney Montgomery Brown told jurors his client didn’t want children working at the plant.

He noted Agriprocessors was under pressure from unionization efforts, an animal rights organization and a Minnesota-based kosher certification group. There were also visits from officials with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

With all that at risk, allowing minors to work at the plant would have meant the death of the company, he told jurors.

Brown said management at the plant was dysfunctional and the gatekeepers in the human resources department were flawed and weren’t doing their jobs.

He said that over the years the plant has given tours to campaigning politicians, city officials and OSHA inspectors, and no one raised concerns.

When Iowa Department of Labor inspectors came up with names of suspected minors, they refused to share them with Agriprocessors officials, so the plant wasn’ able to fire them, Brown said.

He said the labor department was planning its own raid at the plant and wanted to make a big splash, but the U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement beat them to the punch.

Finally, Brown said, Agriprocessors knew the May 2008 immigration raid was in the offing, as evidenced by attorney letters to the federal government offering to cooperate. If Sholom Rubashkin knew there were minors working at the plant, wouldn’t he tell some to get them out before the raid, Brown asked jurors.

Testimony is scheduled to start after lunch. The trial is expected to last about three weeks.

Rubashkin faces 83 child labor violation charges.

– Jeff Reinitz, Waterlo0-Cedar Falls Courier