Slaughterhouse charged with using child labor

In this April 3, 2007, file photo, large truck trailers stand outside the National Beef Packing Co. plant in Dodge City, Kan. A government inspection of slaughterhouses found significant problems with the treatment of cattle at this plant and one in California. Both were slapped with humane handling violations. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner, File)
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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 child labor law violations.

Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller tells a news conference Tuesday in Des Moines, Iowa, about child labor charges.

1 of 2 They're accused of hiring minors and, in some cases, having children younger than 16 handle dangerous equipment such as circular saws, meat grinders and power shears.

The allegations 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 said the violations involved 32 illegal-immigrant children under age 18, including seven who were younger than 16. The complaint says in addition to handling dangerous equipment, the children were exposed to hazardous chemicals such as chlorine solutions and dry ice.

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

Charged are the company itself, Agriprocessors Inc.; 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.

Each defendant faces 9,311 individual counts -- one for each day a particular violation is alleged for each worker. Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller said at a news conference on Tuesday that he would not elaborate on what evidence led to the indictment.

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"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.

Miller said the case is the largest of its type he'd handled in his 26 years as attorney general.

Chaim Abrams, a manager at the plant, said in a statement that Agriprocessors "vehemently denies" the allegations. He said the underage workers -- not the company -- are to blame.

"All of the minors at issue lied about their age in order to gain employment at the company," he 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."

Abrams said the state wouldn't be able to back up its case.

"In order to convict, the state is going to have to prove that the defendants willfully violated the child labor laws," he said. " ... The state will not be able to carry this burden of proof. Agriprocessors acted in good faith on the child labor issue. We look forward to our day in court."

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."