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Iowa Officials Probe Potential Worker Abuse

posted on February 20, 2009

USDA wasn't the only government agency to receive less funding than originally requested in the stimulus bill.

Other casualties in the package include the federal government's E-Verify program -- an existing immigration procedure designed to confirm an employee's background and ensure businesses maintain a legal workforce. Proponents say E-Verify is more than 99 percent effective, and contractors receiving stimulus payments must utilize the program.

But, while E-Verify never made it into the final bill, advocates claim it could render immigration raids at packing plants unnecessary.

However, it's unlikely immigration officials armed with E-Verify would have caught the latest controversy at a Midwestern meat processor.

The housing and compensation of more than twenty men – all of them U.S. citizens – has been called into question. And some believe their treatment borders on "slavery".


Iowa Officials Probe Potential Worker Abuse

More than twenty mentally disabled turkey plant employees in eastern Iowa lived in unsafe group housing and were paid less than the minimum wage according to state officials.

Twenty-one mentally retarded workers at West Liberty Foods, a Turkey processing facility located in West Liberty, Iowa, lived in this so-called "bunkhouse" in the nearby, rural town of Atalissa. The men were hired and housed by Henry's Turkey Service, a Texas-based contractor. Henry's provided room and board for the men but The Des Moines Register newspaper claims the contracting service paid workers as little as 44 cents per hour.

State officials shut down the "bunkhouse" following a series of fire code violations and shipped the twenty-one men to a care facility in Waterloo, Iowa.

The case upset nearby citizens and many state officials – who have launched an official probe into the potential abuse of Turkey plant workers.

Rep. Kurt Swaim, D- Bloomfield, IA: "Did you find out how they came here? How did they get selected? How did they get hooked up with Henry's Turkey Service?" (01:24:35 Hearing Tape1)

Vern Armstrong, Iowa Department of Human Services: "To the best of my knowledge at this point, the gentlemen once they reached the age of majority in the State of Texas, the men were recruited by Henry's Turkey Service and they chose to be here."

State lawmakers held hearings this week in Iowa's Capitol city of Des Moines, hoping to discover the sequence of events leading to this month's investigation. Nearly five years ago, Atalissa city councilmen Dennis Hepker grew concerned about living conditions at the city-owned "bunkhouse".

Councilman Dennis Hepker, Atalissa, Iowa: "So anyway, we were up there working on the shed and I noticed that the front door was chained and padlocked." (01:57:00)

Rep. Clel Baudler, R-Greenfield, Iowa: "From the outside or the inside?"

Hepker: "It was on the outside. And I asked about it and the response I got from the caretakers was that the latch was broke, the wind had been banging it and he was going to fix it."

Hepker testified that he called state officials despite his personal belief that the workers were "happy" but says his concerns were not investigated.

Councilman Dennis Hepker, Atalissa, Iowa: "I was informed that they were understaffed and if I didn't have hard evidence there was nothing they could do."

Testimony from state and local officials drew a mixed response from Iowa legislators.

Rep. Wayne Ford, D-Des Moines: ""Were they abused? Were they called names? Were these the happy guys? No, these were not the happy boys from my perspective." (Hearing Tape3)

Rep. Clel Baudler, R-Greenfield, Iowa: "If you live in a small town you protect these people. And that's what they do. They call them the boys as an affectionate term."

"It's wrong. It's not slavery. These men were happy to work for a living." (02:29:00 Hearing Tape3)

Iowa Governor Chet Culver has asked state officials to wrap their investigation by April 1 and provide any necessary government oversight proposals.


Tags: abuse agriculture Iowa jobs news stimulus USDA