Monday, July 28, 2008

Not kosher in America's heartland

Here's a classic case of religious practice and the terms of "faithfulness" completely missing the point of life, justice, truth and, yes, common, human decency. This particular example comes from Orthodox Judaism. It could just as well have been a story connected to some Christian entrepreneur.

Did you see the story?

The headline and the subtext caught my eye immediately: "After Iowa Raid, Immigrants Fuel Labor Inquiries--Many Teenagers Found--Unsafe Conditions and Long Hours Reported at a Kosher Plant" (The New York Times, July 27, 2008, A1, 16),

Read Julia Preston's complete story by clicking on the title line above.

It seems that immigration authorities raided a kosher meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa and found lots to report. In fact, the raid provides a horrifying glimpse into the lives and struggles of undocumented immigrants who work long hours in terrible conditions.

Agents found 389 "illegal" immigrants when they raided Agriprocessors Inc., the nation’s largest kosher plant. Among those picked up, more than 20 were found to be under-age, some as young as 13. Having been arrested in violation of immigration law, many of the workers have agreed to cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials. The details revealed about the jobs at the kosher plant are chilling.

Working shifts of 12 hours or longer, often through the night, six days a week, was common practice for many of the workers. When workers reported problems, complained about work conditions or sought relief from their harsh circumstances, management threatened to turn them over to immigration officials.

Preston reports, "One, a Guatemalan named Elmer L. who said he was 16 when he started working on the plant’s killing floors, said he worked 17-hour shifts, six days a week. In an affidavit, he said he was constantly tired and did not have time to do anything but work and sleep. 'I was very sad,' he said, 'and I felt like I was a slave.'"

Clearly management was aware of the presence of many under-age workers. Due to the dangers associated with the work, Iowa law regulating meatpacking facilities prohibits the hiring of anyone younger than 18 on the floor of a meatpacking plant. The company denies the accusations. Counsel for the immigrant workers maintains that to date she had identified 27 workers under 18 who worked in the packing facility.

Federal labor officials used an undercover agent during the investigation. During this phase of the inquiry, the undercover informant saw “a rabbi who was calling employees derogatory names and throwing meat at employees.” Jewish managers provide oversight to ensure that the slaughtering and processing of meat abides by kosher standards in keeping with their faith's requirements. Other egregious practices were reported.

Read the entire story. It is more than upsetting.

Two reactions here.

First, any religious rule fixated on a legal or technical requirement that is worked out in a practical context of injustice, exploitation and oppression is foolishly useless. That which seeks to honor God, ends up bringing shame to God's name.

Second, this nation needs comprehensive immigration reform that includes a guest worker program providing for workers who simply want to work. Such a guest worker program should include a registration process that is clear and easy to understand and that encourages compliance. Workers must be protected from unscrupulous management that takes advantage of a worker's "illegal" status.

This story is more than disturbing. Our nation must do better. Our faith demands it. . .and, by the way, any definition of "kosher" (no matter what the faith tradition) should include the just, fair treatment of all who simply want to work and make a living for themselves and their families. The silence of so many people of faith relative to this pressing national issue is certainly not "kosher."



Anonymous said...

Disgusting. Scandalous. And with such long Jewish traditions of concern for the less privileged. It looks like it's not just Christians who are capable of despicable hypocrisy. Apparently, these orthodox Jews missed the part about treating aliens kindly because "you were strangers once yourself."

bpb said...

If allegations prove to be true, this is truly outrageous. I have a Jewish background and find these allegations horrifying. After all the Jewish people have been through and how badly they've been treated and disciminated against . . . I just don't have the words to reflect my outrage.