Cruel conditions for immigrants

September 25, 2008

IN REGULAR reports on the immigrant rights situation across the U.S, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency is rearing its ugly head.

In Cincinnati, in addition to conducting a raid at Koch Foods, a poultry processing plant, ICE has found a cozy partnership with local companies who take advantage of undocumented workers.

In a particularly vicious cycle of exploitation, employers have been hiring workers, forcing them to work in dangerous conditions and then getting them deported rather than pay compensation when they get injured.

According to Curt Braman, one of the directors at the Cincinnati Interfaith Workers Center, workers often omit their Social Security numbers on worker's compensation forms if they don't have a legal one. Lately, the companies themselves have been putting the numbers on the required forms, and ICE shows up to the hearings. In a textbook example of the rule of law under capitalism, the victimized worker is arrested while the criminal employer escapes punishment.

A local meat processing company that supplies Kroger grocery store, which is based here, has been spending some uncomfortable moments in the spotlight. Apparently, the story has escaped national attention, but I can't help but feel that some TV spots featuring "proud" Kroger butchers appearing lately are connected.

Streetvibes, a local newspaper written and distributed by the homeless and formerly homeless, discovered terrible conditions for workers at Cincinnati Processing. The June 2008 issue carried an investigative piece about the situation.

According to the story, the Southwest Ohio Workers Rights Board--in which the Interfaith Workers Center, United Food and Commercial Workers and other organizations participate--found that contract workers were housed in crowded apartments, charged excessive rents and fees and subjected to unsafe working conditions. Those who lived under contract in apartments were subjected to punitive fines for being "untidy," possessing alcohol, missing work or even mingling with the opposite sex.

At work, supervisors harassed the employees, both sexually and by forcing them to work at dangerous speeds. Lines move so fast that meat is regularly dropped on the floor (and not cleaned before being packaged), and workers sometimes cut themselves.

Apparently, inspections by Kroger and the U.S. Department of Agriculture are announced well in advance, giving Cincinnati Processing plenty of time to clean up. As far as they're concerned, their record is unblemished.

However, Aide Rodriguez, a former employee, told the board, "One thing that's for sure is that after working at Cincinnati Processing, I will never buy meat from Kroger, because the condition in which the meat is handled is very bad."

The Interfaith Workers Center is a product of a coalition of community organizers, labor activists and religious groups. At regular Saturday meetings, the Center invites workers to bring work place complaints like these to their attention.

According to Kurt, "Ultimately, the goal is to build workers' power...[T]hrough collective action, workers can solve their own problems."
C.J. Reynolds, Cincinnati

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