The Economics of Oppression

Categories: Letters From Leadership
By Avram Lyon

Advertisments have appeared recently in a Guatemalan newspaper for men to work at a meat packing plant in Postville, IA. The only meat packing plant in Postville, is the Agriprocessor plant, the object of a raid by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on May 12. This is not the first time Guatemalan workers have been recruited to work in Postville, and when a worker comes to Iowa he does so at considerable cost.
Since most undocumented workers do not have visas for employment in the United States they pay a “coyote,” a human trafficker, to bring them into the country. Usually, the coyote charges the worker $4,000 – $5,000. The fact that the worker doesn’t have all the money to pay the coyote hardly matters. The coyote knows which village the worker comes from and the relatives of the worker. The coyote knows he will collect the money, one way or another.

If he comes to this country with his wife, the price is double. If he comes with his wife and a child, the price is triple (no discounts).

The worker then travels quietly from the US border to Postville, possibly with the help of a pre-arranged “temp” agency or recruiter, again at a cost.

When the potential worker arrives in Postville he is often directed by current employees to talk to a supervisor at Agriprocessors who can guarantee employment … but at a price. The supervisor demands that the new recruit purchase a used car from him, usually for an absurd amount. The most common price for such a vehicle I heard from workers I interviewed was $3,500. Workers might complain that they have no money to buy a car. It doesn’t matter. The supervisor tells workers they can pay a small amount each week until the debt is paid. I interviewed a 15 year old undocumented worker, two weeks ago who had been in Postville for six months. He didn’t know how to drive when he “bought” a car (he does now). He doesn’t have a driver’s license and doesn’t have auto insurance.

Once the car is paid for the worker is often forced to buy another car. This time to ensure he keeps his job.
The worker needs to buy fake credentials to show the employer in order to get a job. If he doesn’t have credentials, there are those associated with the plant that know where they can be obtained — again, at a price. Even workers with valid papers are often told they need to purchase fake ones.

Before the worker starts his first day on the job, he is in debt $7,000 to $10,000 … or more.
People often ask why these workers don’t leave if the work is so dangerous, the pay so poor, and the exploitation so terrible.

The answer is indentured servitude.

True, this form of economic slavery is voluntary. No one forced these people to come to the US illegally and Agriprocessors was not holding a sword over their head. Workers were free to quit. But it is indentured servitude nonetheless, and once in Postville the worker can’t afford to leave.

For someone with little or no education and in a foreign country illegally, the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know. Fear and inertia are powerful forces, and for a poor person from a third-world country a full belly, a roof over your head and good schools for children in a bucolic country setting are powerful inducements to stay.  Under such circumstances people will put up with a lot. Like our grandparents who worked in sweatshops on the lower east side of New York, these immigrants want their children to have a chance at a better life.

Nevertheless many, many people left Postville after they paid off their initial debts, unwilling to take the injuries, shorted paychecks, sexual harassment and the insulting treatment that prevailed. There are always jobs available in Postville.

Attempts by Agriprocessors to recruit new workers after the raid appear not to have been successful. The first group of workers the Rubashkin family tried to recruit were Native Americans raided from the Rubashkin owned Local Pride slaughterhouse in Gordon, NB. They were enticed by promises of a signing bonus and good pay. After being in Postville a week, most of these workers left to return home, angry and disgusted by the treatment they received at Agriprocessors. Two of the workers had been injured on the job and they reported that supervisors refused to send them to a doctor. I met these workers and others when they were trying to raise gas money for the trip home. They wanted out and didn’t want to wait for pay day.

The second group of workers came from Labor Ready, a temporary agency in Iowa. Within a short period of time the company withdrew 150 workers because of the dangerous conditions at the Agriprocessor plant.
About two weeks ago a third group of workers arrived from Texas through another temporary firm, the Bravo Labor Agency. A tough looking crew, all with good papers, they appeared to be up to the task. I understand the last recruit from Texas left Postville a week ago. Conditions at Agriprocessors have not changed.

The shortage of workers willing to put up with such treatment is probably why ads have appeared at the end of May in Pensa Libre, a Guatemalan newspaper, for workers needed in a meat processing plant in Postville Iowa. I have no doubt that a small, steady stream of desperate undocumented workers is now on its way from Guatemala to Postville, IA  and these workers will face the same conditions of indentured servitude faced by previous groups. The conditions that existed prior to the May 12, 2008 ICE raid at Agriprocessors, still confront workers today.

Advertisments have appeared recently in a Guatemalan newspaper for men to work at a meat packing plant in Postville, IA. The only meat packing plant in Postville, is the Agriprocessor plant, the object of a raid by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on May 12. This is not the first time Guatemalan workers have been recruited to work in Postville, and when a worker comes to Iowa he does so at considerable cost.
Since most undocumented workers do not have visas for employment in the United States they pay a “coyote,” a human trafficker, to bring them into the country. Usually, the coyote charges the worker $4,000 – $5,000. The fact that the worker doesn’t have all the money to pay the coyote hardly matters. The coyote knows which village the worker comes from and the relatives of the worker. The coyote knows he will collect the money, one way or another.

If he comes to this country with his wife, the price is double. If he comes with his wife and a child, the price is triple (no discounts).

The worker then travels quietly from the US border to Postville, possibly with the help of a pre-arranged “temp” agency or recruiter, again at a cost.

When the potential worker arrives in Postville he is often directed by current employees to talk to a supervisor at Agriprocessors who can guarantee employment … but at a price. The supervisor demands that the new recruit purchase a used car from him, usually for an absurd amount. The most common price for such a vehicle I heard from workers I interviewed was $3,500. Workers might complain that they have no money to buy a car. It doesn’t matter. The supervisor tells workers they can pay a small amount each week until the debt is paid. I interviewed a 15 year old undocumented worker, two weeks ago who had been in Postville for six months. He didn’t know how to drive when he “bought” a car (he does now). He doesn’t have a driver’s license and doesn’t have auto insurance.

Once the car is paid for the worker is often forced to buy another car. This time to ensure he keeps his job.
The worker needs to buy fake credentials to show the employer in order to get a job. If he doesn’t have credentials, there are those associated with the plant that know where they can be obtained — again, at a price. Even workers with valid papers are often told they need to purchase fake ones.

Before the worker starts his first day on the job, he is in debt $7,000 to $10,000 … or more.
People often ask why these workers don’t leave if the work is so dangerous, the pay so poor, and the exploitation so terrible.

The answer is indentured servitude.

True, this form of economic slavery is voluntary. No one forced these people to come to the US illegally and Agriprocessors was not holding a sword over their head. Workers were free to quit. But it is indentured servitude nonetheless, and once in Postville the worker can’t afford to leave.

For someone with little or no education and in a foreign country illegally, the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know. Fear and inertia are powerful forces, and for a poor person from a third-world country a full belly, a roof over your head and good schools for children in a bucolic country setting are powerful inducements to stay.  Under such circumstances people will put up with a lot. Like our grandparents who worked in sweatshops on the lower east side of New York, these immigrants want their children to have a chance at a better life.

Nevertheless many, many people left Postville after they paid off their initial debts, unwilling to take the injuries, shorted paychecks, sexual harassment and the insulting treatment that prevailed. There are always jobs available in Postville.

Attempts by Agriprocessors to recruit new workers after the raid appear not to have been successful. The first group of workers the Rubashkin family tried to recruit were Native Americans raided from the Rubashkin owned Local Pride slaughterhouse in Gordon, NB. They were enticed by promises of a signing bonus and good pay. After being in Postville a week, most of these workers left to return home, angry and disgusted by the treatment they received at Agriprocessors. Two of the workers had been injured on the job and they reported that supervisors refused to send them to a doctor. I met these workers and others when they were trying to raise gas money for the trip home. They wanted out and didn’t want to wait for pay day.

The second group of workers came from Labor Ready, a temporary agency in Iowa. Within a short period of time the company withdrew 150 workers because of the dangerous conditions at the Agriprocessor plant.
About two weeks ago a third group of workers arrived from Texas through another temporary firm, the Bravo Labor Agency. A tough looking crew, all with good papers, they appeared to be up to the task. I understand the last recruit from Texas left Postville a week ago. Conditions at Agriprocessors have not changed.

The shortage of workers willing to put up with such treatment is probably why ads have appeared at the end of May in Pensa Libre, a Guatemalan newspaper, for workers needed in a meat processing plant in Postville Iowa. I have no doubt that a small, steady stream of desperate undocumented workers is now on its way from Guatemala to Postville, IA  and these workers will face the same conditions of indentured servitude faced by previous groups. The conditions that existed prior to the May 12, 2008 ICE raid at Agriprocessors, still confront workers today.

Advertisments have appeared recently in a Guatemalan newspaper for men to work at a meat packing plant in Postville, IA. The only meat packing plant in Postville, is the Agriprocessor plant, the object of a raid by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on May 12. This is not the first time Guatemalan workers have been recruited to work in Postville, and when a worker comes to Iowa he does so at considerable cost.
Since most undocumented workers do not have visas for employment in the United States they pay a “coyote,” a human trafficker, to bring them into the country. Usually, the coyote charges the worker $4,000 – $5,000. The fact that the worker doesn’t have all the money to pay the coyote hardly matters. The coyote knows which village the worker comes from and the relatives of the worker. The coyote knows he will collect the money, one way or another.

If he comes to this country with his wife, the price is double. If he comes with his wife and a child, the price is triple (no discounts).

The worker then travels quietly from the US border to Postville, possibly with the help of a pre-arranged “temp” agency or recruiter, again at a cost.

When the potential worker arrives in Postville he is often directed by current employees to talk to a supervisor at Agriprocessors who can guarantee employment … but at a price. The supervisor demands that the new recruit purchase a used car from him, usually for an absurd amount. The most common price for such a vehicle I heard from workers I interviewed was $3,500. Workers might complain that they have no money to buy a car. It doesn’t matter. The supervisor tells workers they can pay a small amount each week until the debt is paid. I interviewed a 15 year old undocumented worker, two weeks ago who had been in Postville for six months. He didn’t know how to drive when he “bought” a car (he does now). He doesn’t have a driver’s license and doesn’t have auto insurance.

Once the car is paid for the worker is often forced to buy another car. This time to ensure he keeps his job.
The worker needs to buy fake credentials to show the employer in order to get a job. If he doesn’t have credentials, there are those associated with the plant that know where they can be obtained — again, at a price. Even workers with valid papers are often told they need to purchase fake ones.

Before the worker starts his first day on the job, he is in debt $7,000 to $10,000 … or more.
People often ask why these workers don’t leave if the work is so dangerous, the pay so poor, and the exploitation so terrible.

The answer is indentured servitude.

True, this form of economic slavery is voluntary. No one forced these people to come to the US illegally and Agriprocessors was not holding a sword over their head. Workers were free to quit. But it is indentured servitude nonetheless, and once in Postville the worker can’t afford to leave.

For someone with little or no education and in a foreign country illegally, the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know. Fear and inertia are powerful forces, and for a poor person from a third-world country a full belly, a roof over your head and good schools for children in a bucolic country setting are powerful inducements to stay.  Under such circumstances people will put up with a lot. Like our grandparents who worked in sweatshops on the lower east side of New York, these immigrants want their children to have a chance at a better life.

Nevertheless many, many people left Postville after they paid off their initial debts, unwilling to take the injuries, shorted paychecks, sexual harassment and the insulting treatment that prevailed. There are always jobs available in Postville.

Attempts by Agriprocessors to recruit new workers after the raid appear not to have been successful. The first group of workers the Rubashkin family tried to recruit were Native Americans raided from the Rubashkin owned Local Pride slaughterhouse in Gordon, NB. They were enticed by promises of a signing bonus and good pay. After being in Postville a week, most of these workers left to return home, angry and disgusted by the treatment they received at Agriprocessors. Two of the workers had been injured on the job and they reported that supervisors refused to send them to a doctor. I met these workers and others when they were trying to raise gas money for the trip home. They wanted out and didn’t want to wait for pay day.

The second group of workers came from Labor Ready, a temporary agency in Iowa. Within a short period of time the company withdrew 150 workers because of the dangerous conditions at the Agriprocessor plant.
About two weeks ago a third group of workers arrived from Texas through another temporary firm, the Bravo Labor Agency. A tough looking crew, all with good papers, they appeared to be up to the task. I understand the last recruit from Texas left Postville a week ago. Conditions at Agriprocessors have not changed.

The shortage of workers willing to put up with such treatment is probably why ads have appeared at the end of May in Pensa Libre, a Guatemalan newspaper, for workers needed in a meat processing plant in Postville Iowa. I have no doubt that a small, steady stream of desperate undocumented workers is now on its way from Guatemala to Postville, IA  and these workers will face the same conditions of indentured servitude faced by previous groups. The conditions that existed prior to the May 12, 2008 ICE raid at Agriprocessors, still confront workers today.

About Avram Lyon, Board Member

Avram Lyon, an Ameinu board member, is a consultant to labor and Jewish communal organizations.
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