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Meatpacker Faces Charges of Violating Child Laws
Date 08/09/13/23:12
September 10, 2008
Meatpacker Faces Charges of Violating Child Laws

The Iowa attorney general on Tuesday brought an array of criminal charges for child labor violations against the owners and top managers of a meatpacking plant where nearly 400 workers were detained in a May immigration raid.

The state charges were the first to be brought against owners and senior managers at the plant, Agriprocessors, since the May 12 raid. Federal prosecutors convicted nearly 300 workers, most of them illegal immigrants from Guatemala, on document fraud charges, with the majority sentenced to five months in prison. Advocates for immigrants had criticized federal prosecutors for punishing the workers but not the managers.

In all, 9,311 criminal misdemeanor charges involving 32 under-age workers were filed against the company, Agriprocessors Inc., and its owner, Aaron Rubashkin, and his son Sholom, who was the top manager of the packing plant in Postville, Iowa.

The complaint charges that the plant employed workers under the legal age of 18, including seven who were under 16, from Sept. 9, 2007, to May 12. Some workers, including some younger than 16, worked on machinery prohibited for employees under 18, including “conveyor belts, meat grinders, circular saws, power washers and power shears,” said an affidavit filed with the complaint.

In a statement, Chaim Abrahams, a senior executive at the plant, denied the accusations and said the company would go to trial “to put to rest the insidious notion that it knowingly employed under-age workers.”

Mr. Abrahams said the minors had lied about their age, and he predicted that Iowa prosecutors would not be able to prove that managers knew their employees were not old enough to work.

Under Iowa law, employing a worker under 18 on the floor of a slaughterhouse is a criminal misdemeanor with a maximum punishment of 30 days in jail and a fine of $625. But the charges multiplied to more than 9,000 because a new one was brought for each day and each offense. If convicted, the Rubashkins could face more than $5 million in fines and significant prison sentences.

The two-page affidavit claims that Aaron and Sholom Rubashkin were “frequently present” in the slaughterhouse where under-age employees were working, and that they “possessed shared knowledge that Agriprocessors employed undocumented aliens” and that “many of those workers were minors.”

The complaint also charges that under-age workers were not paid for all the overtime they worked and were forced to work before 7 a.m. and after 7 p.m., a violation of child labor laws. Agriprocessors managers “participated in efforts to conceal children when federal and state labor department officials inspected the plant,” the complaint says.

Many of the young workers are illegal immigrants who are seeking special visas, known as U-visas, to remain in the United States to cooperate with the investigation. A lawyer representing them, Sonia Parras Konrad, said many of them had not applied for those visas because they could not afford the $545 filing fee. She said 21 young immigrants she represents were seeking a waiver of the fee from the Homeland Security Department.

The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which has battled unsuccessfully to represent Agriprocessors workers, said the charges showed that abuse of child labor was “standard operating procedure” at the Postville plant.

“Given the seriousness and the sheer number of charges, we cannot see how this company can remain in operation under the current ownership,” a union spokesman, Scott Frotman, said.

In addition to the Rubashkins, Agriprocessors’ human resources manager, Elizabeth Billmeyer, was charged, as were two other managers, Laura Althouse and Karina Freund. All defendants are scheduled to appear in court on Sept. 17.

© 2008 NY Times

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