After Raid, Iowa Meatpacker Seeks Palau Workers

Workers from the Pacific Island of Palau now work at the Agriprocessors packing plant in Postville , Iowa. But Agriprocessors has been charged with an array of labor violations. Palauan officials recently traveled to Postville to meet with plant managers.

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

To Postville, Iowa now, at another meatpacking plant, Agriprocessors. It's the nation's largest kosher meat processor. The plant lost half its work force in an immigration raid in May. Managers have also been charged with labor and safety violations. Now, dozens of people from the Pacific Island nation of Palau have come to Postville to work in the plant, and that has prompted concerns from Palau's government, as NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.

JENNIFER LUDDEN: Never heard of Palau? Maybe you missed this recent episode of "Survivor."

LUDDEN: A motorboat weaves through a maze of tree-covered islands as the host touts Palau's sea life sanctuary and coral reefs.

LUDDEN: Crystal clear water that is home to one of the most spectacular natural wonders of the world.

LUDDEN: Not exactly the kind of place one might be desperate to leave, but it's the area's history which explains why residents can come to the U.S.

LUDDEN: These waters were home to some of the most fierce battles of World War Two, and the remnants of war haunt these jungles and littered the ocean floor in a watery grave.

LUDDEN: After World War Two, Palau, along with Micronesia and the Marshall Islands, became a United Nations Trusteeship administered by the U.S. David Gootnick of the Government Accountability Office says this has led to a special compact.

BLOCK: Palauans have the opportunity and the right to enter the U.S. to live, to work, to receive an education. They come on a non-immigrant visa, but they may stay here indefinitely.

LUDDEN: Gootnick says some Palauan villages still have a subsistence economy based largely on fishing, so even low wage American jobs could certainly be attractive. Palau's ambassador to the U.S. says his countrymen are routinely recruited to serve in the US military, but Hersey Kyota was nervous when Agriprocessors in Iowa first reached out. He had heard about the charges of labor violations against the company.

BLOCK: The government of Palau was concerned, and we took significant steps to make sure that interested citizens were aware of allegations of the mistreatment of employees.

LUDDEN: Palau's president held a news conference to warn people, but Kyota says the government can't prevent anyone from coming. The Palauans began arriving in Postville in mid-September and have told local residents Agriprocessors paid for their plane tickets. The workers have declined to be interviewed. And a spokesman for Agriprocessors declined repeated requests for comment.

David Gootnick at the GAO says, in the past, there have been problems for some Micronesians and Marshall Islanders recruited to the U.S.

BLOCK: Issues with buying one-way tickets and suggesting or promising a return ticket, but it doesn't come to pass, of suggestions about the type of housing and the compensation that's going to be offered that don't come to pass and the like.

LUDDEN: In fact, some Americans recruited to Agriprocessors this summer had similar complaints.

Ambassador Kyota recently traveled to Iowa with Palau's vice president to assess workers' conditions firsthand and meet with Agriprocessor's managers. They came away thanking the company for its job opportunities.

BLOCK: The company is really under a microscope, so to speak, so hopefully therefore, our citizens will be treated fairly.

LUDDEN: That could mean more Palauans will decide it's worth the very long trip to work at an Iowa meatpacking plant. Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.

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