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The Heretic: Exploiting Undocumented Workers Exploits Judaism

Undocumented workers, always one phone call away from deportation and a moment away from being summarily fired, are afraid to object to abusive working conditions. This makes them ripe for exploitation, as has been amply documented, and is one reason why US labor law does not allow employers to prevent illegal workers from unionizing. The May 12 immigration raid at Agriprocessors in Postville, Iowa, the world’s largest kosher slaughterhouse, exposed the dark underbelly of illegal immigration. In response to this exploitation, the Jewish community has split in two.

One side, overwhelmingly non-Orthodox in affiliation, views the conduct of the Rubashkin family, Agriprocessors’ hasidic owners, as beyond the pale. It looks at the history of Agriprocessors and its owners and sees a clear, long term pattern of disregard for US law and halakha, Jewish law. It has demanded change, urged boycott, and rallied for justice.

The other side, overwhelmingly Orthodox, sees little wrong with Agriprocessors. It argues Agriprocessors is being mistreated; that liberal Jews, unions, and unnamed competitors are behind the raid and its media coverage; and that Jewish law governing treatment of workers should at any rate be divorced from Jewish law governing the preparation of kosher food. To these people, the many well documented sins of Agriprocessors and its owners, sins that stretch back many years in an unbroken chain, are irrelevant. Absent from the first is much concern over the availability of kosher meat. Absent from the second is much concern for the poor, often illiterate men and women (and children) who produce our food. There is no biblical command to eat meat, and many of the Rubashkins’ fellow hasidim went years without eating meat because of the difficulty of getting kosher meat in the Soviet Union. There are, however, several biblical commands that apply to Agriprocessors workforce. The most striking comes from Deuteronomy 24:14-15:

You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow countryman or a stranger in one of the communities in your land. You must give him his wages on the very same day [he works], before the sun sets, because he is needy and he urgently depends on it – otherwise he will cry out to God against you and you will be guilty.

A good example of Orthodoxy's apparent disconnect on the issue is the plight of many new workers who are brought to Postville by staffing companies working under contact to Agriprocessors. Recruited from large cities and shipped into Postville, these poor, often destitute people are charged a transportation fee of $75 dollars, despite the fact that the staffing companies are paid for every hired worker. Employees are told they have a couple of main options for living arrangements.

They can find apartments or beds on their own, or they can rent a bed from the staffing company for $100 per week in what is euphemistically called “campus-style” housing. That is $100 per week for what is often a mattress on the floor of a room shared with one or two strangers, in a house filled with more strangers, each clinging to his or her own mattress in a room filled with strangers. (And this is in Postville, Iowa where housing prices are ridiculously low compared to New York or even St. Paul, where a furnished room – not a bed – in a nice part of town rents for $300 per month.) Rent is automatically deducted from workers’ weekly paychecks.The “advantage” to this arrangement is that workers do not need to make a security deposit. And, a Rubashkin family member has been quick to tell me, they get extras: their lawn is cut for them, their utilities are included in the rent, and the house may have cable TV. Sometimes, a staffing company employee even drives a van load of workers to a nearby WalMart. Staffing companies do offer cash advances – $100 per week. But in at least one case, those advances are tied to ATMs that charge $5 per transaction. Lacking local bank accounts or a safe place to keep their money, workers tend to make more frequent, smaller withdrawals rather than one or two large ones. 20% or more of their cash advances can be easily eaten up by fees. A worker who nets $80 on his cash advance still pays back $100, and that $100 is automatically deducted from his next paycheck. Another arrangement has workers renting “campus style” directly from the same landlord the staffing company rents from – GAL Investments, owned by another Chabad hasidic Jew, Gabey Menahem.

The $400 per month fee for a bed drops to just under $230 per month with this plan. But workers need to make a security deposit equivalent to one month’s rent and pay their first month’s rent up front, as well. GAL is said to be a bit flexible on this, allowing workers to pay their security deposits and first month’s rent with their first or second weekly paycheck. Why the largesse? Perhaps because rent and security deposits are automatically deducted from workers’ pay by Agriprocessors – in other words, workers’ paychecks are their security. These and other arrangements offered to new workers often leave these workers with empty paychecks – paychecks that, after taxes, “fees,” and rent leave workers with no money. How do they eat? A significant number of them rely on the community food shelf administered by members of the local Catholic church.

Some Agriprocessors supporters have actually claimed that Agriprocessors keeps the food shelf stocked – a claim that was vociferously denied by Paul Real, the man who runs it, and by Father Paul Ouderkirk and Sister Mary McCauley, the clergy who are most involved in the food shelf’s daily operation. Use of the food shelf has grown exponentially since the raid, first by illegal workers awaiting trial or hiding out from Immigration police, and then from destitute new workers recruited by Agriprocessors who arrive holding pay stubs that show many hours worked but no net pay. And, through it all, Agriprocessors and its supporters see nothing wrong. A delegation of 20 hand-picked Orthodox rabbis friendly to the company, and five hand-picked Orthodox journalists who write for similarly supportive publications, recently took a trip to Postville (all expenses paid by Agriprocessors) to “inspect” company operations.

Their initial itinerary did not include meetings with Ouderkirk, Real and MacCauley or with former workers. No provision was made to meet current workers off-site where they might feel a bit freer to speak, and no provision was made to preserve workers’ anonymity. The rabbis also refused to meet with union representatives. In the end, only four of the rabbis met Real and a church representative. Two – Pesach Lerner, the EVP of Young Israel, and David Eliezrie, a sometime spokesman for Chabad who has been acting as a media advisor for Agriprocessors – are open supporters of Agriprocessors, and were the co-organizers of the trip. Another, Daniel Moscowitz, heads Chabad in Illinois and is close to the Rubashkin family. Yet the clear conflicts of interest and this lack of balance did not stop these Orthodox rabbis from issuing statements ‘clearing’ Agriprocessors. Predictably, the Orthodox journalists followed suit.

We have two Jewish communities, really two Jewish peoples. The fault line dividing them is Orthodox observance. One views exploitation of workers – much like other Agriprocessors-related crimeswith horror. The Orthodox other couldn’t seem to care less. “Everybody does it,” a Chabad hasid told me. “Why should Rubashkin be different?” “The Torah,” I replied. The hasid did not understand my response. Orthodox outreach groups are fond of asking potential recruits a question: Will your grandchildren be Jewish? The idea being that if the non-Orthodox person doesn’t take proactive steps now, his children or grandchildren will marry non-Jews. Those proactive steps? Adopting Orthodoxy, of course. The thing is, they're asking the wrong question. Their question focuses on genetic group identity rather than behavior. The question should be, "Will your children and grandchildren be kind, moral, and ethical people?" Asked that way, the answer is clear. Orthodoxy as currently practiced is no guarantee of ethical behavior – in fact, it’s probably contraindicated. Agriprocessors has proved that.

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