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Teens tell of work at raided Iowa plant

Ex-employees under 18, a violation of state law for meatpacking plants, describe grim conditions.

August 10, 2008|Henry C. Jackson | Associated Press

POSTVILLE, IOWA — Luisa Lopez said no one asked about her age when she started working at the nation's largest kosher meatpacking plant. She was 17, and within days she was on a fast-moving poultry production line, wielding a long, sharp pair of scissors.

"They never told me how to use them," Luisa said in Spanish. "Things moved so fast, and I was always worried I would cut myself."

Yesenia Cordero, whose round baby face makes her look even younger than her 16 years, also said age was never an issue at the Agriprocessors Inc. plant, which state officials allege employed dozens of underage workers in an "egregious" violation of labor laws.

"I never think about how young I am," Yesenia said. "I never think, 'I shouldn't be here.' I just think, 'I need to work.' "

Former underage workers at the northeastern Iowa plant described a perilous environment in which teenagers were asked to perform the tasks of adults, often with little guidance.

They said that although their age and lack of skills were common knowledge at the plant, they were subjected to the same conditions as everyone else and were quickly immersed in an aggressive, fast-paced operation. Under Iowa law, no one under the age of 18 can work on a meatpacking plant floor.

Yesenia said she quickly grew to loathe coming to work inside the dank, cold walls of the plant. But she had no choice.

"I was providing for my family," she said. "It was the only way."

She and Luisa were among 389 undocumented workers arrested May 12 in an immigration raid at the plant that set a record for most arrests in a single-site enforcement effort. Their cases are being processed, but they are among those illegal immigrants who have been released for such reasons as the need to care for relatives.

Yesenia's 18-year-old boyfriend, Henry Lopez, remains in custody. She said he was 14 and not even a high school freshman when he first picked up a long, razor-sharp knife and went to work on the slaughter line.

She said he learned on the fly how to manage the blade and make the series of cuts required on the chickens that came whipping by him.

"He was brave," Yesenia said. "He did his work. He never was told what to do, but he never hurt himself with the knife." She said he never let on if he was scared.

Agriprocessors has emphatically denied state allegations that it knowingly allowed underage workers into its plant. Last week, spokesman Menachem Lubinsky said the company had cooperated with state officials and "protests the issuance of a press release that has patently been motivated by a desire to ride the crest of the wave of current public opinion adverse to" Agriprocessors.

Company officials have declined to comment further.

Yesenia said Lopez hadn't wanted her to work at the plant, but when she became pregnant, he agreed she could work there after the baby was born.

Yesenia began in February, working in the plant's quality control department. A typical work week was six days, with long hours -- sometimes more than 12 a day -- and only intermittent overtime pay, she said.

"We were always tired," she said.

Yesenia cleaned up messes on the floor and made sure departments had enough ice to cool their products. Though she did not like the work, she was helping eke out a living for her growing family.

She and her boyfriend were working when the plant was raided. They haven't seen each other since but have talked on the phone, she said.

Luisa said she hadn't wanted to work at the plant but quit school to do so because her family needed the money. She said she never quite grew used to the blood and gore she walked past on the floor, or to a boss she describes as verbally abusive and about whom she had complained to no avail.

Luisa and Yesenia both described working at the plant as depressing, particularly in the summer. Yesenia said she would long for outdoor work, like an agricultural job in Iowa's vast cornfields.

"When you work many hours, many days in the cold, and it is warm outside, it is very hard," she said. "You get so sad and tired."

In Postville, where the May immigration raid has rattled residents, some said that former employees speaking openly about the working conditions at Agriprocessors was an unexpected benefit.

"Maybe the closest thing to a good that I've seen out of this has been that it revealed how badly people were treated at Agriprocessors," said the Rev. Paul Ouderkirk of St. Bridget's Catholic Church.

"It's like out of a ghost story, but it's true."

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