Section Two: Workplace Exploitation: Immigrant Women Powerless in the Face of Abuses
Soon after crossing into the U.S. in 1998, Maria found herself planting tomatoes in Florida, the country’s leading producer of fresh tomatoes. The 30-year-old Guatemalan with four children once did the difficult work of cleaning hotels in Mexico, but she never worked as hard as she did in the tomato fields.
“I had some friends who said that in the North you earn good money,” she says. “But I’m seeing that’s not the case.”
On her first 12-hour work day, “I cried because I didn’t think I’d make it. Your head hurts because of the [pesticide] spray, your back hurts.”
When working by the hour, Maria says she typically earns $5.75. When working by contract — during harvest, for example — she earns 45 cents for every 32-pound bucket she fills with tomatoes. Racing to make as much money as possible, like many of the more than 33,000 farmworkers toiling in Florida’s tomato fields, Maria runs back and forth, filling her bucket and dumping the load onto a nearby truck.
“You have to run to do 150 [buckets] to make your money for the day.”
That is, when the bosses actually pay.
When not battling the heat, the physical demands and the persistent sexual harassment in the fields, Maria has had to worry if, at the end of a work week, she has given away her labor for nothing.
Of one boss, she says, “He doesn’t let you go to the bathroom, and if you do, he yells at you.”
After putting in two weeks of work, the boss told the workers there was no money to pay them.
Somewhere in America, someone probably paid the full price for the tomatoes Maria picked. But she received nothing. And there was nothing she could do.
The woman pruning an apple tree in New York is among the 4 million undocumented women living and working in the U.S. Despite their vital role in the economy, they typically earn minimum wage or less, get no sick or vacation days, and receive no health insurance.
A vast army of low-wage workers
Because food production is so labor-intensive, the U.S. food industry requires a vast army of low-wage workers. These jobs — planting, harvesting, processing, packaging and serving our food — have been handed down from earlier generations of immigrants to an increasingly Latino workforce.
Maria is among 4 million undocumented immigrant women living and working in the U.S. Because of their status, they fill the lowest-paying jobs in the country. They typically earn minimum wage or less, get no sick or vacation days, and receive no health insurance.
Yet, these immigrants play a vital role in our economy, greasing the gears of the great U.S. food machine, which brings a cornucopia of fruits, vegetables, meats, grains, nuts and processed food to our markets and restaurants like clockwork. Like it or not, we eat the fruits of their labor every day.
Farmers depend on them: The government estimates that 60 percent of our country’s agricultural workers are undocumented immigrants.24 The reality is likely much higher.
Food-processing companies depend on them: Almost a quarter of the workers who butcher and process meat, poultry and fish are undocumented.25
Restaurant owners depend on them: About one out of five cooks are undocumented, and more than a quarter of the dishwashers are undocumented.26
Their economic value is difficult to quantify, but one recent study calculated that legalizing undocumented workers would raise the U.S. gross domestic product by $1.5 trillion over a decade. On the other hand, if the government were to deport all 10.8 million undocumented immigrants living on U.S. soil, our economy would decline by $2.6 trillion over a decade, not including the massive cost of such an endeavor.27 On top of that, it is assured that farmers and food companies would be scrambling to find the workers necessary to maintain the massive enterprise that brings food to our tables.
Despite their contributions, undocumented immigrants exist in a shadow economy — subject to the whims of unscrupulous employers, unable to assert their rights and, for all practical purposes, beyond the protection of labor laws that protect the rest of us from abuse, discrimination and wage cheating in the workplace.
The women interviewed for this report all have worked in the U.S. food industry, in places as disparate as New York, North Carolina, Iowa, Arkansas, Florida and California. They have picked tomatoes, lettuce, green beans, apples, almonds, watermelons, strawberries, grapes, oranges, asparagus, plums, blueberries and peaches. They have cut up chickens and packed turkey wings. A few worked as waitresses. Others boxed desserts. Most accepted backbreaking, physical labor with unflinching determination.
Most of the women have little or no formal education. Some are married, many are mothers and most support family members back in their home countries. They are as young as their teens and as old as their 60s.
Regardless of what sector of the food industry these women worked in, they all reported feeling like they were seen by their employers as disposable workers with no lasting value, to be squeezed of every last drop of sweat and labor before being cast aside.
The vast majority of the women, who were interviewed by the Southern Poverty Law Center over a period of two months in early 2010, said they worked for poverty wages and have been cheated, at one time or another, out of wages they earned. Many reported injuries from the repetitive and strenuous movement required to keep up with the voracious production demands.
Many of those employed in farm work said they have been sickened by pesticides and toxic chemicals. Those working in meat and poultry processing said they labored long hours in bone-chilling temperatures with inadequate safety equipment. Many of the women reported being denied access to bathrooms or barred from taking time off to tend to emergencies like sick children — even when they worked for huge corporate employers required by law to provide those benefits. Some faced illegal discrimination because of pregnancy.
Sophia*, a 37-year-old farmworker in California, came to the United States in 1990 likegenerations of immigrants before her, full of hope. Those dreams have been dashed. “It is different when you live here; (in Mexico) I saw it in a different way,” she says. “But now that I am here, I see it the way it is. It is very difficult to live here.”
All of these women share an understanding that, because of their vulnerable status, complaining is futile and their livelihoods depend on their tacit acceptance of the status quo.
“It’s because of fear [that] we have to tolerate more,” says Yazmin, a 26-year-old farmworker in Florida. “Sometimes they take advantage because we don’t have papers. They mistreat us, and what can we do? Where would we go?”
A ‘Vicious Cycle’
These women are part of the wave of undocumented immigrants who began arriving during the economic boom of the 1990s and created a large pool of easily exploitable workers. The women are even more vulnerable in the workplace than their male counterparts. They are often the primary caregivers for children, making them less likely to assert their rights for fear of being fired or, worse, being deported and separated from their families. And because of their fear of being reported to immigration authorities, they are reluctant to report wage violations, sexual violence or gender discrimination, or to take legal action to stop it. In some localities, particularly where police have entered into so-called 287(g) agreements with the federal government to enforce immigration law, they are fearful of reporting violent crimes committed against them, because even crime victims can be deported.
Research has shown that intensified enforcement of immigration law by the U.S. government has pushed these immigrants further underground — having the effect of lowering their pay as they become even more susceptible to workplace exploitation.28 Companies that hire them benefit from lower labor costs, increasing the likelihood that their competitors will follow suit, creating a “vicious cycle” of depressed wages for both immigrants and low-skill, native-born workers alike.29 And when employers can exploit undocumented immigrants, they have little incentive to make their workplaces safe and fair for all workers.
“They know you’re illegal, and they pay you less than the others,” says Sasha*, who worked at a chicken-processing plant in North Carolina.
While undocumented workers often earn less than U.S. citizens in the same jobs, the women typically earn even less than their male counterparts.30 That may be why, five years after Congress granted legal status to 1.7 million immigrants in 1986, wages for the previously undocumented women had risen by an average of 20.5 percent, compared to 13.2 percent for the men.31
Undocumented workers are largely protected by U.S. labor laws — on paper, at least. Courts have found that all workers, including undocumented immigrants, are entitled to the protection of the Fair Labor Standards Act, which establishes the federal minimum wage and sets rules for overtime pay. Most courts have also held that they are entitled to the protections of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the major civil rights law prohibiting workplace discrimination.
In reality, however, most undocumented workers have no practical way to enforce their rights. And employers know that.
Wage theft prevalent
Wage theft was the most common complaint among the women interviewed. Virtually all said they had been victimized while working in the U.S.
Sometimes, as in the case of Maria in Florida’s tomato fields, they are not paid at all for their work. Typically, there is the implicit, or sometimes explicit, threat that complaints will be met with either firing or a strategic phone call to the police or immigration authorities.
Many women said their pay stubs routinely show far fewer hours than they actually worked. If they question their paychecks or ask for a raise, they are ignored or fired, to be replaced by other desperate workers waiting in line. Although these practices are brazenly illegal, employers know that most of these women will not come forward to complain about violations of the law. They make a completely rational choice to stay quiet, given a legal system that too often fails to protect workers. In the SPLC’s experience, law enforcement is far more likely to support an employer in getting rid of a “difficult” worker than to inquire more deeply and discover the underlying exploitation that led to the disagreement. Indeed, the SPLC has represented several groups of workers who were arrested and/or forced into removal proceedings after they asked to be paid. In one instance, the workers were arrested for “trespassing,” even though they were lawfully on the job during their work hours. These charges were dropped by the prosecutor within 24 hours, but by then the workers were already in immigration proceedings.
“I’d rather not cause trouble,” says Alicia, a 39-year-old Mexican. “It would be worse to lose everything.”
Florida’s migrant tomato pickers earn 45-50 cents for each 32-pound bucket they pick. Grocery chains resist paying even an additional penny per pound to help impoverished farmworkers.
Minimum Wage Rules Routinely Violated
Farmworkers, among the poorest laborers in the U.S., are especially vulnerable to wage theft. Many growers and labor contractors pay “piece rates” rather than hourly wages. This is often a ruse to avoid paying the minimum wage while putting pressure on laborers to work as fast as possible. Under federal law, a farmworker’s weekly pay must equal at least what she would earn under the federal minimum wage for the hours worked. In practice, this requirement is routinely violated, and paychecks regularly misstate the hours worked.
Margot is a 19-year-old farmworker from Mexico who came to the U.S. at 14. She and her husband work seven months in Florida, then migrate to North Carolina and New Jersey as the crops there ripen. “If we stayed here [in Florida], we wouldn’t make enough money because there’s not enough work,” she says.
Each morning, she leaves her two children — a 3-year-old girl and an infant boy — with daycare before starting her long days in the sweltering Florida tomato fields. She says she makes $2.50 for every tray of grape tomatoes she picks. During a typical 12-hour workday, if she manages to work at full speed under optimal conditions, she can gather as many as a dozen trays, about 300 pounds. That’s $30 a day — far less than she would earn if paid the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. Her one-day tomato harvest retails for as much as $1,000.
Conditions, of course, are never optimal. Employers “do what they want with you,” Margot says. “They mistreat you. When you’re working, you know how many trays you filled, but then the full amount of trays isn’t on your check.”
Carina, a 24-year-old Mexican woman who began working the Florida fields a decade ago as a 14-year-old girl, says she was told by a crew leader that she would earn $6 for every box of green beans she picked. She worked seven days a week and kept track of the boxes she turned in. “At $6, it comes out to be $380 or $400,” she says. “When you get your check, it’s for $250. And we go and tell the crew leader. He says, ‘I don’t know.’”
She hears the same words told to others in her situation: “There are many people who need work, and if you want to work, fine. And if not, fine.”
Catalina, a 33-year-old Guatemalan who left three children behind in her homeland to work in Florida four years ago, says she doesn’t complain when she gets shortchanged “because I need to work and I don’t have papers.”
Women like Margot, Carina and Catalina make up about 22 percent of agricultural fieldworkers in the United States. They often find themselves subject to discrimination by employers who prefer male workers. It is not uncommon for them to experience pregnancy discrimination and to receive less favorable opportunities or work assignments than their male counterparts. They are often given fewer opportunities for advancement. They are assigned to the lowest-paying jobs. And they are typically the first to be laid off. Employers are keenly aware of the women’s desperation to get and keep their jobs, which makes them easy prey.
Like many others, Catalina doesn’t always understand how her pay is calculated. But she knows not to question her bosses.
“Yesterday, I did two [900-pound] tubs [of oranges] at $10, because the trees are so bad there’s no fruit,” Catalina says. “So I earned $20. But when you get the pay stub, it says eight hours. But they didn’t pay us for eight hours. I’m better off keeping quiet, even if they pay me $20 or $30. What can I do? They give me work. That’s what I want. I don’t want anything more. If someone wants to rob me, let them rob me. Only God knows, and God will help me. That’s all I can say.”
Like other migrant farmworkers, Isabel’s workday is decided by the season. The 39-year-old farmworker in upstate New York has picked strawberries, grapes and apples. Regardless of the crop, her days usually begin at 4:30 a.m. She and her husband wake up, make a few tacos for lunch and brew up coffee before making their way to the fields and orchards.
“There are a lot of people who can’t take this work,” she says. “I’ve seen that people who just arrived and try this work, they quit. They don’t like it. It’s hard.”
But Isabel and her husband take pride in their work. “We’ve done it for a long time and we know how to do it.”
During her time in the fields, Isabel has learned that a grape vine can live for many years, but it takes a practiced and skilled hand to prune it correctly.
Strawberries also are tricky, she says. “You have to pick them well, and they don’t want them full of snails. They don’t want them to be too ripe or too green. They have to be the right size.”
Working in these fields takes a physical toll. At times, Isabel must spend whole days hunched over. In addition, we “have a lot of hand movement and use big scissors to cut the little branches and cutters for the big branches.”
At the end of the day, the pain can be numbing, Isabel says. “Sometimes I don’t feel my hands. I feel like an animal bit me. I have a pulsing in my arms, and I feel the pain when I sleep. It’s like biting me. It’s intolerable the pain, from using the scissors so much.”
She also suffers from headaches from the pesticides. “It’s such a strong smell,” she says. “When I start to breathe that in, my head starts to hurt, and I feel nauseated.”
She earns roughly $40 a day, but she does not collect a paycheck. Her husband gets a single check for both of them.
It’s not uncommon for immigrant women working on farms and in the food industry to be paid on their husband’s paycheck, an accounting shell game that avoids Social Security, unemployment compensation and disability expenses. Women become, essentially, invisible. The practice is illegal. It has the immediate impact of depriving women of the minimum wages to which they are entitled and the longer-term impact of denying them any chance of qualifying for Social Security or other benefits. It also subjects these women to control by their husbands, partners or male family members, because they do not have the same financial freedom they would have if they were afforded their own pay check. And, if immigration reform is enacted, it will make proving their eligibility for legalization more difficult.
Maria Erica, a 39-year-old woman from Mexico, also experienced such an arrangement harvesting Florida grapefruit. “My husband and I were paid together since we picked together,” she says. “So the check was in my husband’s name. It was his Social Security number. If you got hurt, whether your Social Security number is fake or not, there’s no proof. It’s like you’re invisible.”
When women do receive their own paycheck, it is not uncommon for them to get paid less than male workers receive for the same jobs.32
Least protected workers in America
Farmworkers are the least protected workers in America. They were specifically excluded from nearly all major federal labor laws passed during the New Deal era. These exemptions were enacted as part of a compromise between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Southern lawmakers who wanted to preserve the social and racial order on which the South’s plantation system depended.33 Some laws have been amended since then, but many exemptions remain. The dire situation faced by farmworkers stems from their lack of economic and political power. Because they have no measurable political influence, there has been little organized opposition to the efforts of wealthy agribusiness interests to deny farmworkers most of the legal protections other American workers take for granted.34
Farmworkers, for example, are not covered by workers’ compensation laws in many states. They are not entitled to overtime pay under federal law. On smaller farms and in short harvest seasons, they are not entitled to the federal minimum wage.35 They are excluded from many state health and safety laws.36 Farmworkers also are not covered by the National Labor Relations Act and thus have no protection against unfair labor practices when they seek to collectively act for better wages or working conditions, except in the handful of states that have passed statutes extending NRLA-type protections to agricultural workers.
In addition, child labor laws are riddled with exemptions for farmworkers. Children may legally perform farm work as young as 10 years of age. By contrast, 16 is the minimum age for most non-agricultural jobs. In some states, farmworker children are exempt from compulsory education laws.37
Undocumented immigrant women already face enormous obstacles. The fact that the law offers little protection against many of the abuses they experience adds further insult.
Pesticides and other workplace hazards
Because of their vulnerability, undocumented immigrants are in no position to protectthemselves against exposure to toxic chemicals in the fields or other workplace hazards.
Many of the women spoke about being sickened by pesticides, but they knew virtually nothing about the nature of the chemicals (they commonly characterized them as “white” or “green”) and understood little about safety precautions or their rights.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, farmworkers suffer from higher rates of toxic chemical injuries and skin disorders than any other workers in the country.38 The children of migrant farmworkers, also, have higher rates of pesticide exposure than the general public. 39 If these women do get sick, there is usually no health insurance to help pay for medical treatment. Fewer than 10 percent of farmworkers report having employer-provided health insurance.40
Several of the women interviewed for this report worked in the Immokalee area of south Florida, where, in late 2004, three children with severe birth defects were born within seven weeks of each other to women who worked in the tomato fields of the Plant City-based grower Ag-Mart.41
One child, Carlitos Candelario, was born without arms and legs. Another was so deformed that it was impossible to determine gender without an autopsy after the child died. Carlitos’ parents filed a lawsuit against Ag-Mart, claiming that pesticides caused the birth defects. According to The Palm Beach Post, Ag-Mart settled the lawsuit in 2008 for an undisclosed amount after an expert said in a deposition that Carlitos’ mother was “heavily” exposed to a “witch’s brew” of pesticides.42 The newspaper’s investigation also discovered lax enforcement of pesticide regulations.
Carlitos Candelario, born without arms or legs in 2004, was one of three babies with severe birth defects whose mothers were exposed to pesticides in South Florida’s tomato fields.
Lucia, an Immokalee farmworker, said she tries to avoid thinking about her exposure to chemicals, even after a doctor warned of the adverse effects they were having on her. She can’t, after all, leave her job. “At first with the chemicals, I had a lot of headaches and I went to the doctor about that,” she says. “Sometimes I think the more a person worries, the faster they do themselves in.”
Genoveva Vasquez, a 27-year-old Mexican woman, tells of tying grape vines in California vineyards when it began “raining mist.”
“We were all wet, but kept tying,” she says. “I thought it was a fog. [Then] I saw a truck that was spraying. All that white stuff came over to where we were. After, my head hurt. I felt like it got inside. I felt dry … like when you have a cold or flu or congested.”
Every year, roughly 2 billion pounds of licensed pesticides are used in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The amount is approximately one-fifth of total global use.43
A wide variety of chemical pesticides — insecticides, herbicides, fungicides and others — are used on U.S. crops. Florida’s tomato industry is particularly reliant on these chemicals, using more than 70 different pesticides that are sprayed and dusted at the rate of 217 pounds per acre.44
Thousands Sickened by Pesticides
A 2003 study found that in California the most common illnesses reported by farmworkers to the state health department stemmed from exposure to pesticides in the class of chemicals called organophosphates. The main route of entry was through the skin.45 Organophosphates became widely used in agriculture after World War II, when Nazi Germany used these compounds as potent nerve agents in chemical weapons.46
Each year, there are an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 cases of physician-diagnosed pesticide poisoning among U.S. farmworkers, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.47 Given barriers to health care for undocumented workers, these estimates almost certainly understate the problem. The CDC warns that short-term exposure to high levels of pesticides may cause respiratory, gastrointestinal, allergic or neurologic symptoms.48 Chronic exposure has been linked to a wide range of serious health problems, including cancer, birth defects and other reproductive problems, and neurological disorders.
Many of the women interviewed by the SPLC told stories of headaches, stomach aches and flu-like symptoms after being exposed to chemicals.
“There are times when they’re still fumigating when people go in to work,” says Emilia Guzman, a 38-year-old Mexican woman who describes her work in California vineyards. “My throat started to hurt, I started sneezing, my head started hurting. Many people were sick. I’ve seen where the cherry pickers go in, and I don’t know how they do it, because cherries are covered in liquid. The smell is strong. It’s white and yellow. Then you start sneezing, then your throat and head hurt.”
Gloria, 37, of Mexico, who has worked for years packing Florida lemons, mangoes and other fruits and vegetables, tells of having to wash a white powder off the fruit that is harvested. “When the fruit arrives, it has the white powder on it from the chemicals, and we have to clean it off. And in one way or another, we’re breathing it in. You feel that your throat and chest is filling up. We don’t have anything to cover our mouth and nose with. We’re in constant contact with those chemicals.”
Nothing is accomplished by complaining, says Teresa Hilario, a 20-year-old Mexican woman. Complaints to supervisors are answered with this matter-of-fact response: “If we want to work, fine, and if not, we can go home.”
Elodia, who picks oranges, is resigned to the presence of chemicals in the fields. Like many others, the 50-year-old farmworker from Mexico says the wind sometimes carries a pesticide mist to orchards where workers are present.
It causes “a little vomit or something, but it goes away,” she says.
Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle remains an influential and powerful illustration of the enduring intersection of labor, immigration and food production in the U.S. When the novel was first published in 1906, the country was shocked at the treatment of workers and the methods used to prepare food.
The Agriprocessors Inc. plant in Postville, Iowa, was the scene of horrendous workplace abuses.
If Sinclair were writing today, he would not head to Chicago or New York, the meatpacking centers of a century ago. Instead, he might go to Postville, Iowa.
Marta and her husband arrived in Postville in 2005. Even as far away as their native Guatemala, they learned that the meat-processing plant in the small town — called Agriprocessors Inc. — offered jobs to immigrants while ignoring their legal status.
They submitted applications but, to their surprise, were rejected. Workers at the plant soon informed Marta and her husband that they were missing a necessary element in their applications. “At that time, there was [a supervisor] who would give people work if they bought a car from him,” she recalls. “Then he’d deduct the car payments from your check.”
Marta and her husband bought a car and were soon initiated into a workplace so abusive that it would become a symbol of the very worst that present immigration policies could produce.
In one of the largest immigration raids in history, federal officials swept through Agriprocessors in May 2008 and arrested 389 workers — nearly half of the workforce. As the case made its way through court, what emerged in statements from workers were horrific tales of sexual harassment, degrading and dangerous labor practices, and rampant intimidation of a largely undocumented and frightened labor force.
The raid sent a charge through the national immigration debate and made headlines nationwide. Some commentators claimed that Agriprocessors was an aberration.
A ‘time bomb’
But many experts, including Steven Bloom, a professor of journalism at the University of Iowa, say the horrors uncovered at the company were the result of trends that plague the whole industry. “Anyone who was at all aware of meatpacking trends in America realizes that what happened in Postville was a time bomb ready to go off,” he said.49
On May 12, 2008, nearly 1,000 Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents raided Agriprocessors, the country’s largest kosher slaughterhouse and meatpacking plant. Many of the more than two dozen former Postville workers interviewed by the SPLC were present for the raid and said the experience was among the darkest days of their lives.
Ana, an 18-year-old from Guatemala, said the workday had barely begun when a worker ran by her station yelling “Immigration! Immigration!” Chaos broke out as panicked workers fled from armed officers. Ana started running and quickly found her husband. “I started crying and told him, ‘What are we going to do with our baby?’”
Soon after the raid, stories of the poor working conditions and outrageous mistreatment of workers began to surface. In papers filed to obtain a search warrant, officials mentioned an incident in which a supervisor covered the eyes of a worker with duct tape and then struck the worker with a meat hook. The undocumented worker did not report the incident because “it would not do any good and could jeopardize his job.”50
Bloom said it was no accident that meatpacking plants like Agriprocessors began leaving major urban centers and relocating in small rural towns like Postville, which has a population of little more than 2,000 residents.
“It was economics 101,” Bloom said. “There’s very little union (presence) in middle America, minimum wage is an acceptable wage, and there’s very little government oversight.”
Luz* said supervisors would humiliate workers if they could not keep up with overwhelming production quotas. At one of her various jobs at the plant, she sliced the fat from chicken breasts. As she scraped and cut as fast as she could, a supervisor would often stand next to her with a stopwatch.
“We had to do 16 breasts per minute,” she says. Many of her co-workers would suffer disfiguring injuries to their hands and wrists from repetitive and strenuous motion on the production line.
Dull instruments made the work harder and the pain greater. If workers wanted better equipment or safety gear, it would be deducted from their wages. “If I told them that my knife wasn’t sharp, they charge $10,” she says. “So, for them not to deduct from my check, I put up with the dull knife. So when I wanted to cut the breast, I had to apply a lot of pressure with my hand because I had to cut bone. I couldn’t take the pain in my arm.”
Luz recalls one supervisor who would curse and berate workers, once saying that “since we didn’t have papers, we had to put up with everything he said to us. And, yes, I believed that since we were illegal, we had to take everything he yelled at us and told us.”
She would eventually suffer a miscarriage after being told to lift 70-pound containers.
Workers were often denied permission to go to the bathroom. Lunch breaks were timed to the second and allowed little time for eating.
Alma, a 39-year-old woman from Guatemala, said that on one occasion she was repeatedly told by a supervisor that she would risk her job by taking a bathroom break. She did the only thing she could. “I urinated on myself,” she says. The supervisor laughed at her. “I came home and didn’t tell my husband anything.”
In addition to resulting in embarrassment and additional stress, refusing to allow women to use the bathroom can have health consequences, such as an increased number of bladder and urinary tract infections.
Irma, 30, who also came from Guatemala, said that runoff from the slaughterhouse would often back up into the workers’ cafeteria. “When the cow slaughter backed up, all the dirtiness formed a canal in the middle [of the cafeteria],” she says. “The tables were here, and the waste passed under the table, and that’s where we had to eat.”
Underage workers were common at the plant. Cindy, from Guatemala, was 15 when she started working in Agriprocessors. “I got some papers that said I was older than I really was,” she says.
Cindy lasted just eight months, in part because she couldn’t tolerate the smells. “It was from the chicken,” she says. “I think it went bad because they kept it so long.”
Most of the Postville workers said sexual harassment was widespread and constant. Rosa, a 38-year-old woman from Guatemala, says that her shift supervisor would sneak up behind women and grab their breasts and backsides. “I felt very ashamed.”
In June 2010, a federal judge in Iowa sentenced Agriprocessor’s manager to 27 years in prison on financial fraud charges. The manager, however, was found innocent of 67 charges of child labor law violations.51
Most of the immigrants who were arrested by authorities served sentences of up to five months for identity theft and were deported.52
Lost fingers, dull instruments
The horrible work conditions were not confined to Agriprocessors. Many of the women interviewed by the SPLC have worked in other poultry-processing plants. They spoke of their injuries, their chronic pain, the humiliating conditions and the numerous hazards in plants where chickens on hangers can whiz by at a rate of hundreds per minute. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the federal agency charged with protecting workers’ health, has not enacted any regulation to limit the speed at which poultry and meat processing lines operate — despite the appallingly high rates of injury directly attributable to the linespeed.
Sometimes, people lose fingers. Martina, 32, of Guatemala recalls witnessing one such incident at a chicken plant. “There was a boy working with a machine, and he cut off his finger. The finger stayed in the machine.”
After some searching, the finger was found. “Since the office didn’t take him to the hospital quickly, the finger wasn’t any good anymore. They threw it in the trash.”
The work was, at times, extremely cold and wet for long hours at a time. “The first day, I’ll never forget,” Martina says. “We were at the table, and the water from the chicken falls and spills on your apron and on my shoes. At the end of the day, I couldn’t feel my feet because they were very wet and cold. I worked for a whole week like that. I could barely walk after work.”
Fabiola* worked at a chicken processing plant in North Carolina. She has performed several jobs in the industry, but cutting chickens into pieces with dull scissors ranks among the most difficult. “When you work with the scissors, sometimes we were in the department the whole night cutting, and it’s an amazing amount of chicken that comes out. The band is spinning around, and on the other side all the chicken is dropping out.
“So you had to work fast to get the chicken off the band. And it just keeps dropping. There’s no way to wait or delay it. We hurt our fingers, we got blisters, because sometimes the scissors weren’t good. Or they weren’t sharp. We had to wrap our fingers in Band-Aids because with so much force we hurt our hands.”
Fabiola says the production demands were unreasonable. “I felt like I was going to faint,” she says. “I think that was my biggest problem. The line was too fast. If the crew leader said we weren’t going to get the order out in time, he’d speed it up.”
Milagro, a 37-year-old former poultry worker from Guatemala, says she left her job at the North Carolina plant when she started developing a flesh-colored growth — soft to the touch and about the size of a baseball — on her wrist. She gritted her teeth and ignored the pain for as long as she could. “Little by little, it started swelling,” she says. “It would go away, then come back. Now, it just stayed and hasn’t disappeared.”
She adds that she struggled with the cold temperature in the plant, set by the managers to keep the meat fresh.
“You see your breath in the air. You can see it because of the cold, and your nose runs because it’s too cold,” she says. With the relentless speed of the line, workers often don't have time to even wipe away the mucus. “Sometimes you see some gross things there.”
*Not her real name
24 Julia Preston, “Illegal Workers Swept from Jobs in ‘Silent Raids,’” The New York Times, July 9, 2010.
25 Jeffrey S. Passel, “Unauthorized Migrants: Numbers and Characteristics,” Pew Hispanic Center, June 14, 2005, and Jeffrey S. Passel and D’Vera Cohn, “A Portrait of Unauthorized Immigrants in the United States,” Pew Hispanic Center, April 14, 2009.
27 Raúl Hinojosa-Ojeda, “Raising the Floor for American Workers,” Center for American Progress and Immigration Policy Center, American Immigration Council, January 2010.
28 J. David Brown, Julie L. Hotchkiss and Myriam Quispe-Agnoli, “Undocumented Worker Employment and Firm Survivability,” Working Paper 2008-28, Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, December 2008.
30 Randy Capps, Michael Fix, Jeffrey S. Passel, Jason Ost and Dan Perez-Lopez, “A Profile of the Low-Wage Immigrant Workforce,” Immigrant Families and Workers, Urban Institute, Brief No. 4, November 2003.
31 Shirley J. Smith, Roger G. Kramer, and Audrey Singer, “Characteristics and Labor Market Behavior of the Legalized Population Five Years Following Legalization,” U.S. Department of Labor, 1996.
32 See Zuniga, et al. v. Nature’s Way Nursery of Miami, Inc., 1:08-cv-21796-WMH (S.D. FL, filed 6/28/08); Richard Kamm and Roger Rosenthal, “Women in the Fields: A Brief Analysis of the Plight of Migrant Farmworker Women,” Clearinghouse Review, March–April 1999.
33 Marc Linder, “Farm Workers and the Fair Labor Standards Act: Racial Discrimination in the New Deal,” The National Agricultural Law Center, University of Arkansas; originally published in Texas Law Review: 65 Tex. L. Rev. 1335 (1987).
34 Farmworkers’ lack of political clout predates the relatively recent transformation of the farm labor workforce to one dominated by undocumented workers. Even during the decades when most farmworkers were U.S. citizens, their itinerant employment schedules, coupled with local residency requirements, prevented the vast majority of them from registering as voters.
35 In many states, either there is no state minimum wage or farmworkers are expressly excluded from coverage.
36 See, e.g., Ala. Code § 25-1-1; Ark. Code Ann. § 11-2-101; O.C.G.A. (Georgia) §§ 34-2-2, 34-2-10; La. R.S. § 23.13.
37 Under Alabama Code § 16-28-6(4), children who are legally employed under the state child labor code are not obligated to attend school. Because Alabama’s child labor law (Ala. Code § 25-8-33) exempts agriculture, children employed in agriculture are not required to attend school in the state.
38 The National Agricultural Workers Survey, United States Department of Labor, 2005. www.doleta.gov/agworker/naws.cfm.
39 Maternal & Child Health Fact Sheet, National Center for Farm Worker Health Inc., 2009, http://www.ncfh.org/docs/fs-MATERNAL%20FACT%20SHEET.pdf.
40 “Migrant and Seasonal Farmworker Demographics, National Center for Farmworker Health, Inc., 2009, http://www.ncfh.org/docs/fs-Migrant%20Demographics.pdf
41 Christine Stapleton, “Ag-Mart to Pay for Limbless Child’s Needs,” The Palm Beach Post, April 17, 2008.
43 Fact Sheet: Pesticides, Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, June 2004. http://www.cdc.gov/nceh/hsb/pesticides/activities.htm.
44 Ashok N. Shahane, “Summary of Agricultural Pesticide Use in Florida: 2003-2006,” Florida Dept. of Agriculture and Consumer Services, March 2008: www.flaes.org/pdf/PUI%20narrative%206-19-08%20final.pdf, 33-35 “Florida Tomatoes, Pesticides, Housing,” Rural Migration News vol. 9, no. 2, April 2003. http://migration.ucdavis.edu/rmn/more.php?id=13_0_3_0
45 Kushik Jaga and Chandrabhan Dharmani, “Sources of Exposure to and Public Health Implications of Organophosphate Pesticides,” Rev. Panam Salud Publica/Pan Am J Public Health, 14(3), 2003. http://www.scielosp.org/pdf/rpsp/v14n3/a04v14n3.pdf.
46 Adriane J. Busby and Gabriel Eckstein, “Organophosphates, Friend and Foe: The Promise of Medical Monitoring for Farm Workers and their Families,” 27 UCLA Journal of Environmental Law & Policy, 39 (2009).
47 J. Routt Reigart and James R. Roberts, “Recognition and Management of Pesticide Poisonings,” Office of Pesticide Programs, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Fifth Edition, 1999.
48 Fact Sheet: Pesticides, Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, June 2004. www.cdc.gov/nceh/hsb/pesticides/activities.htm.
49 Interview with Steven Bloom.
50 Application and Affidavit for Search Warrant filed with the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa, May 9, 2008.
51 Julia Preston, “Former Manager of Iowa Slaughterhouse is Acquitted of Labor Charges,” The New York Times, June 7, 2010.
52 Julie Preston, “27-year Sentence for Plant Manager,” The New York Times, June 21, 2010.