Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Union: Raid Likely Ruins Exploitation Probes

Union: Raid Likely Ruins Exploitation Probes

By William Petroski

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A top union official said Friday it appears his "worst fears are now being realized" and government investigations into alleged worker exploitation at a Postville meatpacking plant are being compromised.

Mark Lauritsen, international vice president of the United Food and Commercial Workers, expressed his concerns in a letter to U.S. Labor Secretary Elaine Chao. Because federal authorities are quickly moving 389 workers from the Agriprocessors Inc. plant through the legal process, he said he worries key witnesses won't be available to complete investigations "that could ultimately uncover serious and unscrupulous employer acts."

State and federal labor officials earlier this week confirmed they had been investigating the Postville plant prior to Monday's federal immigration raid. The labor probe involved alleged violations of wage and child-labor laws at the nation's largest kosher meat-processing facility, a state official said.

"The detention, possible deportation and voluntary departure of nearly 400 potential witnesses could greatly complicate the child-labor investigations being conducted in Postville," Lauritsen said. He noted that 18 alleged incidents of juveniles working in the Agriprocessors plant have been made public.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Teig in Cedar Rapids said Friday that 306 people facing criminal charges as a result of Monday's operation in Postville are still in detention facilities in Iowa.

Sixty-two people were released for humanitarian reasons, and Teig said he "assumes they are still in the state of Iowa." An additional 21 people were detained on matters relating to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and some are juveniles who have been moved to facilities outside Iowa, he said.

Michael Staebell, assistant district director of the U.S. Department of Labor office in Des Moines, declined Friday to comment on the union's letter, citing the Postville case as "an open investigation.

Tim Counts, an ICE spokesman, would only say Monday's enforcement operation in Postville was the result of months of investigation and careful planning and "it was conducted in full compliance with ICE policies and procedures."

A spokesman for Agriprocessors has said the company is cooperating with investigators, but has declined to comment on specific allegations.

The United Food and Commercial Workers had been trying to organize Agriprocessors' workers.

Lauritsen asked Chao to explain what steps are being taken to ensure that key witnesses are not being deported or leaving the area. He asked if the labor probe is continuing, and if actions by ICE have hampered government labor investigators.

"It is important to get answers to these questions in order to allay fears in the community that Agriprocessors is avoiding any culpability for these serious allegations of exploitation and abuse because of" actions by federal immigration authorities, he said.

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