A May immigration raid searching for illegal workers in the world’s largest kosher slaughterhouse led this week to criminal charges that the owners of the plant knowingly violated child labor laws. It was the first time the owners and top managers of Agriprocessors have been charged since the May raid.
Shortly after Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller filed a criminal complaint against the embattled meat manufacturer in Postville, Iowa, its owners and three human resource employees, the Orthodox Union threatened to withdraw its kosher certification unless new management is hired within two weeks.
Such a move would cause “a tremendous disruption” in the retail kosher meat supply just days before the High Holy Days that begin Sept. 29, acknowledged Rabbi Menachem Genack, the OU’s kosher director.
“We don’t want to completely disrupt supply,” he explained. “But we are looking to transition to a new reality that will require at a minimum new management. We’d like to see the new management by Sept. 29, but we’re playing this by ear. If they hire a new person who is not able to move to Postville in time, we’re not going to destroy” the relationship.
The company has insisted that it never knowingly hired minors and/or illegal immigrants.
Rabbi Genack said the company’s principal owner and president, Aaron Rubashkin, has been trying since the May 12 raid to replace the management. “They interviewed lots of people,” he said. “They want people with experience and in this environment it is not easy. … They have to get the right person to say yes.”
The May 12 raid resulted in the arrest of 389 illegal immigrants. It prompted Rubashkin to replace the plant’s CEO, his son Sholom, with another son, Yossi. Rubashkin and Sholom were both named in the criminal complaint.
Rabbi Genack said the new CEO “should not be a family member.”
In a statement, Agriprocessors denied the state’s claim that the company knowingly hired 32 people who were under the age of 18, seven of whom were under 16.
“All of the minors at issue lied about their age in order to gain employment at the company,” the statement said. “At the time of hiring, all of the minors, like all job applicants, presented and signed documents stating that they were over 18. They knew that if they told the truth about their age they would not be hired.”
The statement said that whenever the company learned of an underage applicant or worker, it terminated him or her or rejected his or her application unless the applicant produced a birth certificate showing his or her true age.
“In order to convict, the State is going to have to prove that the defendants willfully violated the child labor laws,” the statement noted. “That means that the State, as to every one of the alleged violations, is going to have to prove that each defendant knew that the employee was underage on the day in question, and knew that it was against the law for the person to be employed in the manner alleged.
“The State will not be able to carry this burden of proof,” the statement added. “Agriprocessors acted in good faith on the child labor issue. We look forward to our day in court.”
The criminal complaint and affidavit filed Tuesday in Allamakee County District Court named as defendants Rubashkin, his son Sholom, who managed the Postville plant until late May, and three human resources employees. It charges that the five hired underage workers, retained them as employees and concealed their presence during inspections or assisted in doing those things.
It alleges that between Sept. 9 and May 12, underage children worked at Agriprocessors and became exposed to dangerous chemicals and/or “operated conveyor belts, meat grinders, circular saws, power washers, and power shears.”
It alleges a total of 9,311 child labor violations — one violation for each day worked. Each violation is a misdemeanor punishable by up to 30 days in jail and/or a fine of up to $625.
“All of the named individual defendants possessed shared knowledge that Agriprocessors employed undocumented aliens,” the affidavit claims. “It was likewise shared knowledge among the defendants that many of those workers were minors. The company’s hiring practices encouraged job applicants to submit identification documents which were forgeries, and known to contain false information as to resident alien status, age and identity.”
Marc Stern, general counsel to the American Jewish Congress, reviewed the charges and said it was “not the most persuasive affidavit in support of a criminal charge. I’m not saying these people are innocent … [but] the affidavit is on the thin side.”
Rabbi Genack said he understood that federal authorities were still investigating the facility.
Even if the OU withdraws its kosher certification from the Agriprocessors plant, Rabbi Genack said that Rabbi Menachem Weissmandl provides his own kosher certification at the plant. Rabbi Weissmandl told JTA that he plans to continue certifying the plant.
“My business is kashrut,” he explained. “As long as the high kosher standards are in place, I’m not removing any heksher [kosher seal]. My business is to make sure that the place is 100 percent kosher.”
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) raised questions about Agriprocessors’ operations two years ago after the animal rights group surreptitiously videotaped workers using meat hooks to rip out the tracheas of cows that were still conscious despite having had their throats slit by kosher slaughterers. The publicity caused changes in the plant’s operations, but PETA insists that problems persist.
The scandal surrounding Agriprocessors also resulted in the creation of a new seal called the Hekhsher Tzedek that will evaluate kosher food production not only as it relates to the food but also the welfare of employees, corporate accountability, quality control and animal welfare. It has been adopted by the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and was recently endorsed by the Reform movement’s rabbinical arm.
Rabbi Genack said he has long supported efforts by employees to unionize the plant. He said that effort should be pursued and that Rubashkin has recently agreed to begin discussions on this subject.
Before the May 12 raid, Agriprocessors provided about 60 percent of all kosher meat in the United States, Rabbi Genack said. But after nearly half of its workforce was arrested for being illegal immigrants, the number of employees at the plant was reduced considerably and production slowed.
As a result, competitors are rushing to fill the void and Empire Kosher, the large poultry producer, is reportedly preparing to enter the kosher beef market.