As Purim approaches, thousands of Israeli children and families grapple with poverty
On May 28, Rabbi Asher Zeilingold and I went to Postville, Iowa, on a mission to find the truth about the working conditions of Hispanics employed at AgriProcessors. What motivated me to make the trip was an extremely negative article on that subject by Nathaniel Popper in the Forward.
It was after discussing the article with my good friend Rabbi Zeilingold, who provides a hashgacha for some Agriprocessors products, that I decided to travel with him to Postville and search for the truth. The fact that I speak fluent Spanish could only help us in that search.
The drive to Postville from Minneapolis took us four hours, during which time we speculated as to what kind of situation we would find there. Could it be that we’d see a Third World environment in the middle of America’s heartland?
Upon our arrival in Postville we met with Ron Wahls, a guidance counselor for the public school district and a respected member of the community. A former farmer, Mr. Wahls holds a degree in Education and has been working as a teacher and counselor for many years. He has long been involved with helping immigrants get established in Postville; for example, when a child of an immigrant starts school, Mr. Wahls will make sure that any necessary vaccines are provided to the youngster by the school district. Through his many years of civic service he has become a close friend and a trusted confidant of the Hispanic community.
Mr. Wahls showed us the housing accommodations of Hispanic workers. We went through many corners of Postville and witnessed a wide range of living arrangements. On one side of the spectrum we saw at least 10 brand new homes with more than 2,000 square feet built by Central American immigrants; on the other side we saw mobile homes that served as temporary dwellings for newcomers. (We were told that the trailer park we saw was owned by a member of the Postville City Council.)
We met with approximately 20 Hispanic workers, about half of them women. We told them that we did not represent AgriProcessors but were trying to ascertain how the workers felt about their situations. Our questions were split into three categories: the conditions of the living quarters; health care arrangements; and working conditions in general (including safety training and salaries).
I asked one woman, whom I’ll call Maria, where she lived. She told me she rented an apartment and shared it with a relative. She said she was saving for a house. A single mother, Maria has two children; both attend the local public school.
Another person interviewed – call him Juan – started working in Postville seven years ago. At the beginning, Juan lived with some friends in a trailer. After a few years of hard work he’d saved enough money to get a loan from the bank and build a new home. He originally came alone but now has his family with him and is able to provide them with all the basic needs that any American family deserves: a roof, food, health care, and education.
We asked the workers about their health care plans. We were told that there are two choices: they can spend fifty dollars a week on medical insurance or use the public health clinic in Postville. They normally choose the public system and are attended to by doctors who apparently have a good rapport with the Hispanic community.
An employee I’ll call Miguel told us he’d had an accident. He was taken to the clinic, where he was interviewed by a representative of a human rights group. The representative gave him a card and told him he should call if he ever had any problems or saw any irregularities. I asked Miguel if he’s ever called him. He has not.
Miguel told us he was not happy with his wage of $8.50 an hour. He wants a raise and has not received it. He said he’s worked in three different slaughterhouses, one of them AgriProcessors. The plant that gave him the best wages is now closed; another plant did not offer him steady work. At Agri, the salary may not be what he wants but he gets a steady income – steady enough that he has managed to build a brand new split-level home. He has decided to settle permanently in Postville.
The workers we spoke with said they liked their employers. The consensus was that AgriProcessors provides them a dependable income and is, overall, fair to its employees. For example, at one point the workers were having issues with some of the supervisors they call mayordomos. Two mayordomos were giving the employees a hard time; they would scream at them and use language the employees found offensive. These mayordomos are gone, and things are back to normal. Agriprocessors does not condone this type of behavior.
We asked workers if they could find other jobs. They said they could, and so of course we asked why they don’t leave. “Why should we?” they all replied, pointing out that they get better pay at AgriProcessors and have better working arrangements than would be the case practically anywhere else.
In addition, they said, Postville provides them an excellent standard of living free from persecution, oppression, and other negative pressures they previously endured in their lives. One of those interviewed was concerned that due to the bad press and trouble caused by unions, the plant would be forced to close and he would lose his job.
We asked the workers if they’d been given safety training. They said the company trains them regularly and has established procedures for the safety of the employees. The training includes meetings and movies. Overall, they feel they have a good understanding of what they need to do to protect themselves and prevent accidents.
From our interviews a clear pattern emerged:
* The workers generally come from Central America. Temporarily, they get established in a poor dwelling environment; they may share a room or a house with relatives or friends.
* After saving enough money, they either leave town or move to a permanent home in Postville. Those who decide to settle are likely to bring over immediate family members.
* In many cases, established workers will invite other relatives to Postville and settle them in their homes. The work opportunities, the health care and educational systems, the living conditions in Postville – all act as magnets for immigrants.
Who am I, and where do I stand on workers’ issues? I earned a B.S. in Physics and Mathematics from the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras. I obtained my Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley in 1990. At the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras, I took, in addition to my courses in Mathematics and Physics, many courses in Social Sciences. I have read both Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations and Karl Marx and Friedrich Engel’s The Communist Manifesto. I developed, in Puerto Rico and Berkeley, a consciousness for Social Justice.
I cannot see, in the case of AgriProcessors, Inc., any wrongdoing. That little Iowa town of Postville is providing a haven to immigrants from Latin America and Hispanics in general. There is ample space for growth and jobs are plentiful. Above all, workers have the freedom to do as they wish. Some will choose to stay, others to go. Nobody is tying anyone to workbenches. People like Mr. Wahls go the extra mile to ensure that immigrants receive fair treatment, and AgriProcessors, faithful to Torah ethics, provides an environment where its employees are treated with justice.
About the Author: Carlos Carbonera holds a doctorate in mathematics from the University of California at Berkeley.
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