If answers aren’t exactly forthcoming from Postville, well then, people are going to Postville to try and seek them out.
A veritable parade of Jews — busloads from the Midwest last Sunday for a rally on behalf of immigrant rights, and this week a group of Orthodox rabbis traveling at Agriprocessors’s expense on what is being called “a fact-finding mission” — went looking for answers about the conditions in which their kosher meat is produced.
As bad press for Agriprocessors mounted —two public relations firms it hired when its current wave of problems first hit no longer represent the company — the nation’s largest kosher meat manufacturer was struggling to return to normal after a raid by immigration authorities in May.
While no members of Agriprocessors’s management would agree to an interview, “on the advice of legal,” said company spokesman Menachem Lubinsky, it is clear that the company is anxious to repair its image in the Jewish community, in what Lubinsky calls its “core community” of kosher meat consumers — the Orthodox.
“There’s starting to be some pressure in the more right-wing Orthodox community,” said Shmuley Yanklowitz, co-director of Uri L’Tzedek, a progressive Orthodox group focused on ethics. “A month or two ago they were very uninformed, but we’re finding now that more and more people are showing interest in responding and being informed” about what’s happening at Agriprocessors.
Jewish groups including his, the Conservative movement-based Hekhsher Tzedek and community-based groups focused on progressive causes, like Chicago’s Jewish Council on Urban Affairs and Jewish Community Action of St. Paul, Minn., have been speaking out about the allegations of unethical, as well as illegal, workplace practices at Agriprocessors. Allegations include that the company used under-age workers in its slaughterhouses and forced staffers to work under dangerous conditions.
No charges have been brought against Agriprocessors owner Aaron Rubashkin or other senior managers.
But 389 workers were arrested in May by federal immigration authorities for being here illegally. Some were also charged with identity theft. Most, from Mexico and Guatemala, are serving five-month sentences and will be deported at the end of their incarceration. Four dozen mothers of young children were released to house arrest while wearing monitoring devices. They are being supported by a local Catholic church, which is supplying them with food and medical care.
Agriprocessors has donated boxes of meat to those workers, said Lubinsky, and is allowing them to live in company-provided housing without rent, he said.
It is the company, Lubinsky said, that is the victim.
“We are in the midst of a Dreyfus trial in the media,” said Lubinsky, referring to Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish member of the French military who was falsely convicted of treason in late 19th-century France, targeted because he was a Jew.
Agriprocessors’s “PR nightmare began the day they moved into Postville. These Lubavitchers, these outsiders, are convenient targets,” Lubinsky told The Jewish Week. “Plants all over the country make mistakes but they don’t get killed. Nobody boycotts McDonald’s or tells them they have to change when illegal immigrants are arrested there.
“From the first moment they came to Postville they were convenient targets, judged by a standard very few others were,” he said. They were not given the leeway another large company would be given.”
Agriprocessors hired an external compliance officer, Jim Martin, who is a St. Louis-based criminal defense attorney and formerly worked as a federal prosecutor.
In an interview with The Jewish Week Tuesday, Martin said that the company “has instituted a series of steps related to the employment of individuals so we are in full compliance with immigration rules and regulations.”
Agriprocessors has hired an outside consultant to evaluate compliance with federal safety regulations, and has also recently hired a full time safety officer who will be hiring additional associates, according to Martin.
The company has implemented a bilingual anonymous tip line, Martin told The Jewish Week. It is advertised around the plant, urging workers to call it with any safety or other concerns. An outside contractor receives those calls and then refers them back to him, Martin said.
But he refused to say how many calls there have been, if any, what they were about and how they were resolved.
“It’s not my role to answer detailed question about how the day-to-day operation goes,” Martin said.
While he is in Postville only occasionally, he will be there on Thursday to meet with the contingent of Orthodox rabbis.
Uri L’Tzedek’s leaders say that Martin has not been as forthcoming about improvements as he promised he would when, on July 8, the group withdrew its boycott of the company’s products. Nearly 2,000 people signed onto the boycott.
“Suspending the boycott was predicated on Jim Martin’s work, based on his hiring and transparency with us,” said Ari Hart, co-director of the group. “They’re not transparent to the degree that we’re satisfied.
“We are concerned about the lack of information that has been kept confidential about the changes at the company. They have been very reticent to share with the general public changes that they’re making.”
Martin said, in response, “I have told them as I’ve told you that the details of how we execute our compliance efforts are not a matter of public discussion.”
Hart is going to Postville this week when the rabbis brought by Agriprocessors are there.
“We want to make sure they’re exposed to the population affected, not just jargon from the company,” said Yanklowitz.