At Iowa Meatpacking Plant, New Workers Complain

Since an Iowa meatpacking plant lost workers in an immigration raid, native-born workers and Somali refugees have moved in to take their place. But some have been dismayed at the living conditions, or put off by the work, and a few have already left.

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Since an immigration raid in May, the nation's largest kosher meat-packing plant has been scrambling to fill hundreds of jobs. Agriprocessors lost half its workforce in May when nearly 400 illegal immigrants were arrested there and hundreds more stopped going to work out of fear.

Yesterday, we reported on complaints from some of those former workers about mistreatment at the plant.

Today, NPR's Jennifer Ludden tells us who's been taking their place.

JENNIFER LUDDEN: There isn't much local labor in this tiny town in Iowa farm country. Since Agriprocessors was accused of knowingly hiring illegal immigrants, it turned over its hiring to outside labor contractors. The first busload brought in included people recruited at a homeless shelter in Texas. That didn't go over well, and some were sent back. The next wave of workers were Somali refugees.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

LUDDEN: A few of them play cards in an empty former mattress store on Postville's main street. A Somali from Minneapolis read about the raid and convinced dozens of his fellow countrymen to apply for the jobs in Iowa. He's rented this space with visions of opening a Somali restaurant. But it's not panning out.

Mr. ALI SHIRO(ph): The company, it has not the safety.

LUDDEN: No safety?

Mr. SHIRO: No safety.

LUDDEN: Ali Shiro moved here from Las Vegas, then quit his job at Agriprocessors after just seven days. Shiro says he worked three years at a turkey processing plant in Minnesota so he knows how a slaughterhouse should be run. His job here was to clean the machines, one of the most dangerous positions, but he says there were no safety locks.

Mr. SHIRO: There are two times I'm in the machine and the mechanic, they start the machine. That's why I'm quitted this job.

LUDDEN: You were scared you'd get hurt.

Mr. SHIRO: Yeah. Because I don't want to kill myself.

LUDDEN: The Iowa Labor Department says it's found evidence of a number of safety violations at Agriprocessors. The company says it's hired new safety and compliance officers. As for the Somalis, while some have quit, others say they've been fired and slowly, their numbers are dwindling. Taking their places are workers recruited from the Midwest.

Mr. RICKY JOE RAPIER(ph): Well, it's hard for me to be employed because I have failed knees, I have a drug history and things like this.

LUDDEN: Fifty two-year-old Ricky Joe Rapier moved here a few weeks ago from Indianapolis seeking a second chance. He says he has no problem with the hard work. He vacuums out turkey innards. But he's been unsettled by the housing his staffing company arranged.

Rapier walks me into the two-story home he shares with at least six other packing plant workers.

Mr. RAPIER: I sleep there. And my bunkie sleeps here. That's our bathroom right here.

LUDDEN: They sleep on mattresses on the floor crammed into the dining room, utility room, and they're told will soon have another roommate in the dank concrete basement. There's no furniture. The upstairs shower doesn't work. And in the living room and kitchen, ceiling leaks have left rotted-out holes.

Mr. RAPIER: I mean, they treat us like illegal immigrants, right? You crowd a bunch of people in one house, you know? And see, illegal immigrants couldn't complain because they're illegal.

LUDDEN: Others in town say they've heard similar stories of substandard housing. But a spokesman with Rapier's staffing company, One Force, says he's heard only one complaint. And he says the contract workers signed strongly recommends they find their own accommodations.

Meantime, the workers have $100 a week deducted from their checks for rent, plus other deductions for travel and cash advances. It's left some, like Ariel Jimenez(ph), nearly penniless their first weeks here.

Mr. ARIEL JIMENEZ: They promised me $700 a week. And my first check was $42. They ripped me off. I want my money back.

LUDDEN: Again, the contractor says all the deductions are clearly spelled out in the contract.

Unidentified Woman: If there's anything here you want, feel free to take whatever you need there.

LUDDEN: Postville's local food pantry has helped dozens of the new workers make ends meet. Lutheran pastor Steve Brackett says he resents having to essentially subsidize Agriprocessors' low wages. And he says there's been another unwelcome change. Many of the Latino workers arrested in the immigration raid had settled into the community, having children, buying homes. Brackett says the replacement workers are nearly all single men.

Pastor STEVE BRACKETT (Postville Lutheran Church): We had fights. We had a stabbing. We've had crime go up. There've been other problems and difficulties. And I think it will be several years once again before that stabilizes.

LUDDEN: Postville is now bracing for possibly another exotic new group of workers. A labor recruiter in the Pacific island of Palau has been talking up the great jobs to be had in Iowa. Palau is a former U.S.-administered United Nations territory, so its residents can work here legally should they make the 8,000-mile journey.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.

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