Iowa files child labor charges against meat plant

By: AP
By: AP

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) -- The owner and managers of the nation's largest kosher meatpacking plant were charged Tuesday with more than 9,000 misdemeanors alleging that they hired minors and in some cases had children younger than 16 handle dangerous equipment such as circular saws, meat grinders and power shears.

They are the first criminal charges against operators of the Agriprocessors plant in Postville, where nearly 400 illegal immigrants working at the facility were arrested in May in one of the largest single-site immigration raids in U.S. history.

The complaint filed by the Iowa attorney general's office says the violations involved 32 illegal-immigrant children under age 18, including seven who were younger than 16. Aside from handling dangerous equipment, the complaint also says children were exposed to dangerous chemicals such as chlorine solutions and dry ice.

The attorney general's office said the violations occurred from Sept. 9, 2007, to May 12, 2008, when the plant was raided by federal immigration agents.

Charged are plant owner Abraham Aaron Rubashkin; former plant manager Sholom Rubashkin; human resources manager Elizabeth Billmeyer; and Laura Althouse and Karina Freund, management employees in the company's human resources division.

"All of the named individual defendants possessed shared knowledge that Agriprocessors employed undocumented aliens. It was likewise shared knowledge among the defendants that many of those workers were minors," the affidavit said.

The charges are simple misdemeanors, each carrying a maximum penalty of 30 days in jail and a fine of $65 to $625.

There was no immediate response to a call seeking comment from an Agriprocessors spokesman. The company has denied knowingly hiring illegal immigrants or minors.

Sonia Parras Konrad, an attorney representing more than 20 of the children, said her clients were as young as 14 when they started working at the plant.

"We don't need to see any papers to see that someone is a child," she said. "This was not one mistake, two mistakes, three mistakes, but many, many mistakes."

Parras Konrad said minors in the plant were treated the same as adults and often worked in the same conditions.

"They were hungry all the time, it was freezing cold or burning hot," Parras Konrad said the children told her.

The attorney general's office said the company encouraged job applicants to submit forged identification documents that were known to contain false information about their resident status, age and identity.

"Each defendant ... hired children, retained the employment of children observed working throughout the plant, and/or participated in efforts to conceal children when federal and state labor department officials inspected that plant," the affidavit said.

The more than 9,000 violations the state alleges fall into five categories: employing a child under age 18 in a meatpacking plant; employing a child under age 18 in an occupation that exposes the child to dangerous or poisonous chemicals; employing a child under age 16 who operated power machinery; employing a child under age 16 who worked during prohibited hours or more hours in a day than permitted by law; and employing a child under 16 who worked more days in a week than permitted by law.

It said the company's records also show that employees were not paid for all overtime worked.

Postville resident Dave Hartley, 50, said the allegations were unsettling.

"Everything is unsettling because Agri's a huge employer in this town," he said. "So you want to see the town strive and move forward."

He said one troubling aspect of the charges is that Postville will again be thrust into the spotlight.

"You want things to get back to normal," Hartley said. "I wouldn't say it's turmoil in town, per se, but people are just wondering what's going to happen."

Associated Press writers Michael J. Crumb in Des Moines and Nigel Duara in Iowa City contributed to this report.

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