Kosher Meat Plant Faces Child Labor Allegations

State officials in Iowa filed charges Tuesday against top executives of Agriprocessors, the Kosher meatpacking plant raided by immigration agents last May. The state accuses the owner and managers of the plant with more than 9,000 counts of child labor violations.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The owner and managers of the nation's largest kosher meat-packing plant face possible jail time over charges they employed underage workers. The state of Iowa yesterday filed a string of child labor violations against Agriprocessors.

That's the same plant that lost nearly 400 workers in May in one of the country's largest immigration raids. Yesterday, new charges came out of that investigation, as NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.

JENNIFER LUDDEN: Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller made his announcement first: more than 9,000 counts of child labor violations. They cover each day that 32 underage workers were at Agriprocessors between September last year and the immigration raid in May.

Attorney General TOM MILLER (Iowa): Probably the most numerous have to do with employing a child under 18 in a meat-packing plant and exposure to dangerous or poisonous chemicals.

LUDDEN: Chemicals like chlorine solutions and dry ice. The affidavit also alleges that the minors handled dangerous equipment, like power shears and circular saws, and it claims some officials tried to hide the children when labor inspectors visited.

Mark Grey of the University of Northern Iowa studies the meat-packing industry. He says he's not surprised by the charges. There were rumors of child labor at Agriprocessors for years. But he says the extent of the allegations is unprecedented.

Mr. MARK GREY (University of Northern Iowa): I'm really astonished at the number of violations that are cited in the affidavit. And I'm also surprised at the degree to which this could come back to haunt them, of course.

I did a quick calculation of each of them kids, 30 days for each of the violations. They'll be in jail for more than 700 years.

LUDDEN: That's the maximum punishment if convicted. Those charged include Agriprocessors' owner, Abraham Aaron Rubashkin, his son and former plant manager, Sholom Rubashkin, plus three officials in the plant's human resources department.

Agriprocessors declined to speak on tape, but in a written statement, vehemently deny the allegations. It says the workers in question lied about their age in order to get hired and asserts that prosecutors will not be able to prove defendants willfully violated child labor laws.

Agriprocessors has also repeatedly denied that it knowingly hired undocumented workers, and now it may have to make that case in court, as well. Yesterday, two human resources employees who also face the child labor allegations were arrested in a separate federal investigation. They're charged with helping illegal immigrants get fake identification documents then use them to fill out job applications at the plant.

Former Agriprocessors employee Elver Herrera(ph) recently explained how the scam worked.

Mr. ELVER HERRERA (Former Employee, Agriprocessors): When you your Social Security number, your name, in two or three years, they made you have to change again because for the letter the government sent to them.

LUDDEN: That would be a letter from the Social Security Administration telling Agriprocessors that certain employees' Social Security numbers were not valid. Herrera, and now federal prosecutors, say the company would force those workers to then buy new identification documents, presumably so they could claim they fired anyone with a bad number.

Herrera says he told his supervisor he didn't want to do this, but the response?

Mr. HERRERA: You don't do it, you don't have a job tomorrow. You don't come tomorrow.

LUDDEN: News of the charges was welcomed by immigration lawyers like James Benzoni(ph). They've complained that the May immigration raid on Agriprocessors punished the victims of abuse, not those carrying it out.

Mr. JAMES BENZONI (Immigration Attorney): This corrects some of that balance, and it's the state stepping in and saying that we expect our people to be treated fairly and honestly, and we're going to back them up. And they did here.

LUDDEN: Both state and federal officials say their investigations are continuing. Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.

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