Monday, July 17, 2006

Meatpacker's Treatment of Workers and Animals: Not Kosher

Something's not Kosher in Iowa.

Kosher beef is not only tastes better, according to many meat eaters, but it is good for the soul as well, because Jewish law requires that animals be killed quickly and humanely, and the processes must be approved by supervising rabbis.

Unfortunately, at least in one Kosher meat processor, AgriProcessors Inc in Iowa, not only are the cows allegedly not killed humanely, but the human workers aren't treated humanely either, according to a long article in last May's Forward:
One of those workers — a woman who agreed to be identified by the pseudonym Juana — came to this rural corner of Iowa a year ago from Guatemala. Since then, she has worked 10-to-12-hour night shifts, six nights a week. Her cutting hand is swollen and deformed, but she has no health insurance to have it checked. She works for wages, starting at $6.25 an hour and stopping at $7, that several industry experts described as the lowest of any slaughterhouse in the nation.

Juana and other employees at AgriProcessors — they total about 800 — told the Forward that they receive virtually no safety training. This is an anomaly in an industry in which the tools are designed to cut and grind through flesh and bones. In just one month last summer, two young men required amputations; workers say there have been others since. The chickens and cattle fly by at a steady clip on metal hooks, and employees said they are berated for not working fast enough. In addition, employees told of being asked to bribe supervisors for better shifts and of being shortchanged on paychecks regularly.

"Being here, you see a lot of injustice," said Juana, who did not want her real name used because of her precarious immigration status. "But it's a small town. It's the only factory here. We have no choice."
Now, the Washington Post reports that two Conservative Jewish organizations have created a task force to investigate the problems at the plant:
A month after the [Forward] piece ran May 26, the Rabbinical Assembly and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism launched a fact-finding study to find out what wrongs, if any, are being committed at the plant in Postville, Iowa.
Workers report being treated like animals:
On Manuel's first day, he said, he found himself slicing up chicken carcasses without even receiving the hour-long orientation that other workers had described.

"There's no training," he said. "You learn by getting chewed out."

Now, Manuel arrives each day at 4:45 a.m. Although the Supreme Court decided last year that meatpacking plants must pay their workers for donning and doffing — dressing and undressing before and after work — Manuel and the union organizers who lived in Postville said that the workers are not allowed to punch in until they take their positions on the line. Rubashkin responded by saying that the company did change the rules when the Supreme Court ruling came down.

Manuel works 10-hour days in the chicken department. Lunch breaks are 30 minutes, but after taking on and off the bloody smocks and masks at the beginning and end, there is closer to 15 minutes' time left for eating. Dozens of workers on a shift share the cafeteria, and the workers say there are only three microwaves, which short-circuit when used simultaneously.

"I've said, 'Why do you treat us like this?'" Manuel said. "We're human beings, not animals."
And People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals allege that the animals aren't treated very well either:
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has also campaigned against the slaughterhouse in recent years, alleging that workers, including rabbis, ripped the tracheas and esophagi out of the throats of fully conscious cows, which were left trying to stand three minutes after their throats were slit.

PETA cites a 2004 videotape it says was obtained by an undercover cameraman for the group. In the video, cows that have had their throats slit are shown writhing on the ground of the plant in pools of their own blood. AgriProcessors denied charges of inhumane slaughter then, telling PETA that its practices complied with kosher law.

Temple Grandin, a designer of livestock handling facilities and the author of several books on animal handling, welfare and facility design, saw the PETA tape but has not been allowed to visit the facilities.

"During my career I have visited over 30 kosher beef plants in the U.S., Canada and other countries . . .," she writes on her Web site. "Kosher slaughter without stunning can be done with an acceptable level of welfare when it is done correctly. When shehita [Jewish ritual slaughter] is performed correctly with the long knife, the cattle appear not to feel it. This tape shows atrocious procedures that are NOT performed in any other kosher operation."
OSHA also isn't pleased with the company's treatment of workers:
When it comes to outside regulatory agencies, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration have tagged AgriProcessors this year with six violations. That amounts to more than half the violations in all Iowa meatpacking plants during that time, according to OSHA statistics.
And the Agriculture Department isn't very happy about the plant's treatment of animals:
In March, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released a report finding that AgriProcessors had indeed violated provisions of the Humane Slaughter Act. The USDA did not, however, pursue criminal charges.