The problems at Agriprocessors that resulted in a federal raid at its Postville, Iowa, plant earlier this month highlight larger issues in America, rather than in just the kosher industry, according to the administrator of the Orthodox Union’s kashrut division.
"This issue of undocumented workers in plants is not a Rubashkins’ story, it’s an American story," said Rabbi Menachem Genack, who spoke Tuesday night at the Jewish Center of Teaneck to some 80 listeners. "It is standard in many manufacturing facilities that workers have documentation but are not legal."
Rabbi Menachem Genack tells a Teaneck audience that if Agriprocessors, the largest kosher meat producer in the country, is found to be criminally liable, the Orthodox Union will withdraw its certification. photo by josh lipowsky
Genack, of Cong. Shomrei Emunah in Englewood, said that a faulty American immigration policy was creating these problems, which, he added, are widespread in factories across the country. He said that he did not know if the Rubashkins, the Brooklyn-based Lubavitcher family that owns Agriprocessors, were aware of workers’ falsified documents, but he urged members of the audience to be patient as the investigations continue.
"We have to see where the facts take us," he said. "If [the Rubashkins] are found to be criminally liable, then we would have no choice but withdraw the supervision."
Laws guaranteeing workers’ rights have their basis in the Torah, Genack said. Still, he defended the OU’s position of not monitoring working conditions at the factory. Jewish companies should "just be conforming, not better, not worse" in their compliance with labor laws.
If the charges against Agriprocessors are accurate, he said, that signifies that dozens of federal inspectors already in the plant have failed at their jobs. Allegations include violations such as paying below minimum wage and physical abuse.
"The United States government has rules and laws that monitor these activities," Genack said, citing the Environmental Protection Agency, OSHA, and USDA. "The OU position is these are important issues, but we don’t have the expertise to develop standards in these areas. It’s not an easy thing to determine or define."
Because of the number of federal agencies responsible for overseeing the plant, Genack said that the most serious charges involving physical abuse of workers are unlikely to be true. Likewise, he dismissed allegations that workers ran a methamphetamine lab on the premises.
Still, the government has the resources to quickly recognize and address problems as they appear, he said.
"Issue after issue, they should have been handling this," Genack said of federal inspection agencies.
U.S. Attorney Matt Dummermuth said last week that ’97 of 389 people detained at the Agriprocessors plant pleaded guilty and were sentenced on felony charges. Criminal charges brought against the detainees all related to the use of false information to gain employment. Of those sentenced, the vast majority received five-month prison sentences followed by three years of supervised release. All those sentenced face deportation. Genack said he told the Rubashkin family that as a first step to fixing the problems in Postville, they should get "independent, professional management and the family should step down [from running the plant]."
Sholom Rubashkin, the company’s CEO who oversaw the Postville plant, announced his resignation earlier this week. "The best course of action for the company, its employees, the local community and our customers is to bring new leadership to Agriprocessors," Aaron Rubashkin, the owner of Agriprocessors Inc., and the father of Sholom Rubashkin, said in a statement. A company statement further said that Agriprocessors is conducting an independent investigation of the immigration issues and is cooperating with the government. The Brooklyn butcher, who founded the company in 1987, added, "The company has begun the search for a new permanent chief executive officer. We have engaged a team of industry experts to help us identify and secure a new leader who can help us meet the needs of Agriprocessors today and in the future. We will make more information on the search process available by the end of next week."
The statement reiterated that "due to pending legal issues," the company would not respond to specific allegations. These include charges of hiring underage workers, sexual harassment, and withholding of overtime pay. If the company hires independent management, then the OU is unlikely to withdraw its supervision, even if the Rubashkins are found liable, Genack said.
According to Eli Rosenfeld, a spokesman for Empire Poultry who was at Tuesday night’s gathering, that company has increased its production and seen "a noticeable increase" in orders in the past two weeks. Despite fears of shortages or price gouging, Rosenfeld said Empire does not anticipate a price hike. Genack said Agriprocessors has enough inventory to avoid a "dramatic change" in prices but calls for a boycott which have come from a number of Jewish organizations could change that.
Uri L’tzedek, a project started by students at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a liberal Orthodox rabbinical school in Manhattan, began circulating a petition this week asking Agriprocessors to pay its workers at least the federal minimum wage, abide by laws pertaining to workers’ rights, and treat employees according to Torah standards.
According to a statement on its Website, the Jewish Labor Committee calls on Agriprocessors "to live up to the responsibilities of corporate citizenship, end its campaign of worker abuse, and respect the rights of its employees including their legal right to union representation. Until Agriprocessors establishes its commitment to these responsibilities, we urge consumers of kosher meat products to seek alternatives to the Rubashkin labels."
In its statement, the JLC asserted that the company had displayed "a clear pattern of employer negligence and even lawlessness," including violating child labor laws and tolerating various forms of worker abuse.
Similarly the Conservative movement’s top bodies have asked that kosher consumers "evaluate whether it is appropriate to buy and eat meat products" from Agriprocessors.
Meat and poultry produced by Agriprocessors is sold under the following kosher and non-kosher labels: Aaron’s Best, Aaron’s Choice, David’s, European Glatt, Iowa Best Beef, Nevel, Rubashkin’s, Shor Habor, and Supreme Kosher.
JTA contributed to this report.