Our VoiceHealth & Environment

Beyond Belief: The Exploitation of Mentally Disabled Iowa Turkey Workers

Rev. David L. Ostendorf • Feb 25, 2009

If Postville, Iowa is the poster story of meatpacking companies and immigration enforcement run amok, Atalissa, Iowa is the latest snapshot of horrific exploitation of vulnerable workers in the nation’s poultry industry.

In recent days the Des Moines Register and other Iowa newspapers broke the sordid story of the three-decade ordeal during which Henry’s Turkey Service, in concert with West Liberty Foods, employed mentally disabled workers to pluck and gut the company’s turkeys for America’s tables. For thirty four years workers were paid as little as 44 cents an hour. After deductions for room, board, and other “costs” the workers netted $60-70 per month; their Social Security checks, in turn went to the Texas-based company that owns Henry’s. West Liberty Foods washed its corporate hands of the matter via its contract with Henry’s—standard operating procedure by an industry that dumps its primary responsibilities on “contractors.”

Henry’s housed the workers in an old school building—known locally as the bunkhouse—owned by the town of Atilissa. Based on numerous press reports, squalor is the only word that can describe the place. Upwards of sixty five workers once lived there; when the state finally got around to taking action in response to the Register’s recent story, twenty-one remained. Some of the men lived there for over twenty years. All the men have now been transferred to a care facility in Waterloo.

The men were apparently welcomed and accepted by the community. Yet, no one seemed to have asked about their jobs or their living conditions. Not the town. Not the State. Not a federal agency. The last safety inspection was done in 2001. According to the Cedar Rapids Gazette a state Department of Human Services (DHS) social worker reported in 1974 that “Once the resident becomes an employee of Henry’s Turkey Service, he for all practical purposes loses most basic human rights.” The Gazette stated that between the 1970s and 1997 there were no additional reports on the matter in DHS files. Town officials professed little knowledge of the situation, even though the community owned the now-infamous bunkhouse sited right in its midst.

Now that the story broke, the State is up in arms, as well it should be. Every agency with jurisdiction is on the case. The FBI is checking it out. Criminal charges may emerge. Senator Harkin will hold a hearing. Thirty-four years later.

This is but the latest outrage stemming from an industry that—as a colleague stated so eloquently—has lost its moral compass. It is a story beyond belief.

But even more appalling is that the nation’s food system is grounded in these endless, horrific stories of low-wage worker exploitation—exploitation of the most vulnerable in our midst. Immigrants. Refugees. Workers of color. Mentally disabled men.

Even now Florida farmworkers are waging a battle against forced labor—slavery—in the fields.

Even this day ill-equipped and ill-trained contract cleaning crews in meatpacking plants are exposed to and work daily with toxic chemicals.

Even at this moment line speeds are injuring countless packinghouse workers in the most dangerous industry in the nation, and chronic repetitive-motion injuries are rendering them pain for life.

And Henry’s Turkey Service, its Hill Country Farms owners, West Liberty Foods, and food system companies across the land walk away with the profits.

Communities, state, and federal agencies have for too long turned their collective backs to this daily reality. Rigorous enforcement of current laws to protect workers has virtually evaporated. The responsibility is always someone else’s and, thereby, it is no one’s.

There is indeed no moral compass left in this industry that provides meat and poultry, fruit and vegetables to a nation that seems unconcerned about how its food is produced and processed. For too many years, too many decades the food industry in the U.S. has been unwatched, unmonitored, unregulated, uninspected, unseen.

If ever there was a time to organize and act to begin the long process of challenging and changing this industry in concert with its workers it is now.

If ever there was a time to reset the moral compass so that the most vulnerable who labor daily to feed us are afforded their rights and treated with dignity, respect, and humanity, and with just wages, benefits, and working conditions it is now. There are no more excuses.

For the men who worked three decades for Henry’s Turkey Service it is too late. But with those workers struggling on the lines, in the fields, and on the farms this day the time to act is upon us.

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