- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 6, 2008

DES MOINES, IOWA (AP) - A kosher meatpacking company accused of violating Iowa child labor laws denied knowingly hiring any minors and said Wednesday that the government’s allegations are “inflammatory.”

State officials said Tuesday that they had uncovered “egregious” violations involving 57 children, ages 14 to 17, who worked at Agriprocessors Inc.’s Postville plant, the nation’s largest kosher meatpacking plant. The allegations come on the heels of a May raid of the plant by federal immigration officials who arrested a record 389 illegal immigrants.

Agriprocessors spokesman Menachem Lubinsky said the company has cooperated with state officials throughout the investigation, which has spanned several months. He criticized a news release issued in which labor commissioner Dave Neil said the company violated nearly aspect of the state’s child labor laws.

“Agri(processors) categorically denies the suggestion that it knowingly hired or retained minors as employees and it protests the issuance of a press release that has patently been motivated by a desire to ride the crest of the wave of current public opinion adverse to Agri(processors),” he said in the statement Wednesday.

Lubinsky said it is Agriprocessors’ policy not to hire underage workers and to terminate any employees who are determined to be under 18 years of age. Under Iowa law, it is illegal for children under the age of 18 to work in meatpacking plants.

Lubinsky said that on April 3 state inspectors conducted a surprise investigation at the Postville plant to search for underage workers. The team of inspectors toured the facility and “identified no minors working at the plant,” he said.

Two weeks later, Lubinsky said state officials told the company that there were underage employees working at the plant. Agriprocessors requested that the workers be identified so that they could be fired, but the labor commissioner’s office refused, he said.

The company offered to let labor officials review the company’s hiring records on April 30, but Lubinsky said they responded that the review would happen May 21. The immigration bust at the plant was executed a little over a week before that date.

“Notwithstanding the leisurely pace of its investigation, the inability of even the government’s expert to identify any employees in the plant as minors, and the refusal to disclose the identities of any employees who the Labor Commissioner believed to be employed in violation of child-labor laws, the Commissioner has now issued an inflammatory press release alleging that there were ‘57 cases’ and ‘egregious violations’,” Lubinsky said.

Neil said on Wednesday the state investigation became easier after the federal immigration raid.

“Quite frankly, it really loosened things up. People were more willing to talk after the raid than they were before the raid,” he said.

The investigation took longer than most because of language barriers, and because child labor investigations of such magnitude don’t often occur, Neil said.

“You really don’t have anything to compare it to,” he said.

Kerry Koonce, a spokeswoman for Iowa Workforce Development, the agency which oversees the labor commission, said the maximum amount of fines that Agriprocessors could face will depend on what charges the attorney general’s office chooses to bring against the company. She estimated that fines could range from $500,000 to $1 million.

Labor officials said they are still investigating possible wage violations at the plant.


Associated Press Writer Henry C. Jackson in Postville, Iowa, contributed to this report.



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