More than 200 Ventura County residents, most of them farm laborers unable to find work because of the recession, have accepted job offers over the past six months to work at a Midwestern meatpacking company with a history of safety violations.
Last month, officials from meatpacking giant IBP Inc. came to Oxnard's unemployment office to recruit workers for their Dakota City, Neb., beef slaughter and processing plant. It was the latest in a series of recruiting trips by the firm to Ventura County.
"The agriculture is very difficult these days, and we can't find any landscaping jobs, either, because there's no water," said Salvador Ortiz, 25, as he waited in line at the state Economic Development Department's Oxnard office for an interview with IBP officials.
"They say it's very nice up there," said his friend, Hermilio Zamora, 23, who also wants to relocate. "We'll have to put up with the cold, but one has to fight."
In November, 1988, IBP paid $975,000 to settle $5.7 million in fines leveled by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration for allegedly ignoring safety hazards and failing to report more than 1,000 injuries and illnesses in its Dakota City and Joslin, Ill., plants, which employ about 4,800 workers.
Company officials say IBP has vastly improved working conditions at its plants, and state officials say they are satisfied with the meatpacking firm's recruitment practices in California.
But critics say the company is preying on people who are desperate for work without informing them of its safety record.
"A lot of people take these jobs because they're desperate, but they find out real quick that Nebraska ain't Southern California," said Joe Kinney, a former livestock consultant who now heads the Chicago-based National Safe Workplace Institute.
"The work is grueling and hazardous, the towns are very small and anglicized--Mexicans and Chicanos aren't readily accepted," said Kinney. "IBP hires these people because they're exploitable and don't ask questions. They are workers with very low expectations."
Since IBP began recruiting in California a year ago, about 1,000 Latino fieldworkers--at least 200 from Ventura County--have made the move, company officials said.
Workers are offered starting pay of $6 an hour--a more than $1 an hour increase over the average wage for farm workers here--travel expenses and five days of free housing. They also get health and dental insurance, steady hours and full-time employment, none of which migrant workers normally receive.
IBP officials say they are recruiting in California because the labor pool in the Midwest is too small to accommodate their expanding operation.
"The baby boom is over, and the number of people entering the work force is shrinking," said IBP spokesperson Gary Mikelson.
"Since we couldn't meet our needs within our local region, we looked at where unemployment was high and came to California. We found a lot of people who were interested. It was a match made in heaven."
But complaints against IBP--the largest beef and pork processing company in the country with 17 plants in eight states--prompted the Iowa Legislature last year to pass a law protecting slaughterhouse employees from out of state. IBP has seven plants in Iowa.
The Iowa law requires that meatpacking companies pay for return tickets for workers who decide to go back within four weeks of their first day of work. It also requires that companies with more than 10% non-English-speaking employees hire interpreters and liaison officers to provide information on social services.
Employers also must keep a job-information sheet signed by each employee recruited outside a 500-mile radius. The sheet outlines minimum work hours, health risks and job responsibilities.
"IBP has been very good at recruiting Hispanics," said Mike Peters, a former Iowa assemblyman whose legislative committee championed the bill last year.
"But when they arrive here, they find out that this is extremely hard, sometimes crippling work. You might cut 200 pieces of meat the same way in an hour for eight hours a day. Your wrists become numb, and you could become partially disabled. I would not recommend workers from California or anywhere else in the country do this kind of work for $6 an hour," he said.
As part of the 1988 OSHA settlement, IBP agreed to launch a three-year program at all of its plants to reduce on-the-job injuries--many of which have been caused by repeated hand, wrist, and arm motions.
Mikelson said IBP was unfairly singled out by OSHA for problems prevalent throughout the meatpacking industry. Moreover, company officials said, IBP has made strides in improving workplace conditions in the past two years.
"Our effort is to adapt tools and work methods to our employees, in order to reduce physical stress on the job," said IBP vice president Ron Goodrich. "Some changes won't happen overnight. However, we believe our efforts are on course."