Friday, 6 June 2008

Rubashkin and the Cost of a Kosher Chicken

Bmidbar - in the wilderness - no-one can hear you scream.

It might the tag line for some new Hollywood movie.

In the wilderness, maybe the Children of Israel thought they could get away with their behaviour, because who cares what goes on in a wilderness?

As a Rabbinical student I led a bus tour of America. We drove from New York, on the East Coast to San Diego on the West Coast, then north up the coast to Portland

Oregon, and then back again.

It turns out that, despite what you may have thought, there is a middle to America. New Yorkers, San Franciscans and the like call is fly-over. A wilderness.

One of my earliest literary forays into this wilderness, and I remember it well, came in a book, Boychicks in the Hood by Robert Eisenberg. In this touching collection of essays a secular Jewish guy, who learnt Yiddish from his grandmother, finds out he has a cousin who is a Satmar Hasid. So he goes off to meet and before he knows it he

has found himself on a world-wide tour of the Ultra-Orthodox world.

It is a lovely book and it was the first insight I had into a world of Bratlav Chasidim heading to Uman, the Yeshiva in Gateshead and more.

But one chapter stuck more than any other in my mind. It was when Eisenberg headed to a town called Postville, North-East Iowa. Fly-over territory.

There, far far from any kind of Jewish centre Robert Eisenberg visited a slaughterhouse. Not a normal kind of slaughterhouse, you understand,

The largest kosher slaughterhouse in the world.

Agriprocessors, or Rubashkins as it is known.

It's hard to get a sense of how powerful an organisation Rubshkins are - or at least were.

60% of all kosher beef in America.

40% of all kosher poultry comes from this one slaughter house.

When Aaron Rubashkin founded his slaughterhouse he re-wrote the book on how to provide Kosher meat, taking all the labour out to where the animals were.

The plant was a huge employer in a very depressed part of the United States, around 1,000 employees, that is sustaining 1,000 families. When the Rubashkins opened a new processing plant in 2006 the Governor or Iowa gave the company a cheque for half a million dollars, part of an incentive package to bring the work to the town.

Reading Eisenberg's book I was left with the quaint picture of he painted of 200 frum yids, sitting around, shechting chickens and cows by day, studying by night and generally feeling very bored.

It amused me, and stuck in my mind when I heard something far far more serious.

Two weeks ago Federal agents raided the Rubashkin plant. Of the 1000 staff they made 68o arrests, that is 68o arrests.

The investigating officers were looking to find illegal immigrants and they found at Rubashkins plenty.

In the last week 260 of illegal Guatemalan workers plant have been sentenced to five months in prison. The New York Times has called the raid the largest criminal enforcement operation ever carried out by immigration authorities at a workplace.

It turns out that when the Federal Government wanted to send out a message that illegal workers would no longer simply be deported they picked on this oh so Jewish employer.

And it get's worse

My colleague Harold Kravitz, a Rabbi in Minnetonka, went to visit Postville this week.He was able to meet with some of the women who worked in the plant. The men have all been jailed, but the women, if they have kids, are having their sentences delayed so they can care for their charges.

Harold wrote the following

`We spent hours hearing about appalling working conditions and the abuses that have taken place at Agriprocessors. We heard allegations of all kinds of abuses: underage workers; the poorest pay of any slaughterhouse in Iowa; supervisors who demanded payments and sexual favors in exchange for jobs or particular assignments. Workers consistently described being cursed at and screamed at to work faster and harder. We heard of people working in demanding and dangerous jobs with no training. We heard two stories of workers being struck. We repeatedly heard workers describe how a lead supervisor would demand that they buy a used car from him for more than its value in order to get a job at the plant, even though they were not eligible for a driver's license. The people we talked to are in the process of being deported. They had nothing to gain or lose from what they now say about their experiences. They are simple folk who answered questions directly without apparent embellishment'

Rubashkin have been paying their new employees $5 an hour, that's £2.50 to you or me, substantially below the mandated federal minimum wage.The Federal application to make the raid records information from an informant that a human resourcesmanager laughed when the worker presented her with three social security cards being used by three different workers, but carrying the same social security number. The source also claims to have seen weapons being traded in the plant and, God help us, a methamphetamine lab on site. The source, a one-time employee recalls that he destroyed the lab, but was subsequently confronted by his supervisor and, the source believes, this led to the termination of his employment.The search warrant affidavit is a shander, a hillul hashem, a deep embarrassment.

In fact my colleagues, members of the Rabbinical Assembly, Masorti Rabbis, have had their eye on Rubashkins for some time. A commission of enquiry into working conditions at the plant reported some years ago and a number of American Conservative Synagogues have been boycotting Rubashkin meat.A group of Conservative Rabbis, led by Rabbi Morris Allen have been doing important work in setting up what he calls Hekhsher Tzedek

Hekhsher Tzedek is a supervision not of the details of slaughter and list of ingredients of food products, but a supervision of the human labour that went into their manufacture.It is a supervision of worker pay, provision of health benefits, vacation, sick pay, training, health and safety, corporate governance and transparency and environmental impact.It is one of the most important initiatives in the Movement.It may have been in part behind the raid.It may have been being the decision of KAJ, one of the major Orthodox certification organisations in America, to stop supervising at Rubashkins.I am proud of Hekhsher Tzedek.

But I am ashamed and angry about this;

I am angry and ashamed because I, as a Kosher-observant Jew, have been turned into an accomplice to oppression.

Kol Yisrael Aravin zeh le Zeh - all of Israel is responsible for one another.

The corrupt and illegal hiring practices of Rubashkin's have wound up a wrecking ball that has now been cut loose and left to blow apart families and individuals least able to care for themselves.The corrupt and illegal hiring practices at Rubashkin's have placed a stumbling block before the blind -- economic migrants fleeing their lives of poverty in Latin America looking for a chance in the developed world.

And you must not put a stumbling block before the blind.

Not even in the Wilderness, not even in Potsville.

The verse

Lifnie Iver lo titein rnichshol -- you shall not put a stumbling block before the blind continues veyareita me-eloheicha ani Hl - and you shall fear your God, I am THE LORD

Why, ask the Rabbis ask is this extra bit of text included - you shall fear God.

Because the blind person who has just stumbled might not know if the noise of a stumbling block being placed before him was done ‘For his good or otherwise.’

And indeed no-one else might see the egregiousness done to this blind person.But God, God knows

The one who knows all thoughts. You shall fear that God,

even in fly-over territory where no-one really wants to look

Even in a slaughterhouse where we don’t look too closely because the whole business of producing kosher meat is,well, just a little too bloody for comfort.

But while we are digging around in Chapter 19 of the book of Leviticus let me share some another verse.

You shall not defraud your neighbor, nor rob him; the wages of he who is hired shall not remain with you all night until the morning

Or how about this one, from Deuteronomy

You shall not abuse a needy and destitute labourer.

Or this one from Malachi

I will act as a relentless accuser against those...

Who cheat labourers of their hire...said the Lord of Hosts.

(Malachi 3:5)

The Rubashkin scandal has barely featured in the Jewish Chronicle, but its been all over the blogosphere.Some have protested that these messy employment practices are an abuse of our requirement not to be a scoundrel in the face of the law

L fnin mishurat Kadin

But that misses the point entirely.

The problem is that employment regulations are halachah.It is prohibited to treat employees badly not from some cosy ethical standpoint.It is prohibited as a matter of din.

So where now?

I feel a sense of obligation to the families left in Postville, stripped of a source of labour that they should never havebeen offered, but now cannot do without.The local Churches are being overwhelmed by those indesperate need of support. I have pledged some of my own funds, anyone wishing to join me is invited to send a cheque to the shul marked for this purpose.

But there is also something else.

Something more important and far broader in its impact.

This grubby, far away, incident at Rubashkins threatens to draw the veil from all the things we don't want to see in these lives we live, driven by consumption.

Abraham Joshua Heshcel put it most forcibly.

why is it only required for butcher shops to be under religious supervision? Why not insist that banks, factories and those who deal in real estate require hekhshers and be operated according to religious laws? When a drop of blood is found in an egg, we abhor the idea of eating the egg, but often there is more than one drop of blood in a dollar or a lira and we fail to remind people constantly of the teachings of our tradition.

There is much in the papers and on the news about the horrors of price increases, fuel, food.

But the truth is that we pay too little for the resources we consume.

We cannot justify paying the paltry amounts we do for our food; even kosher meat, and we protest at the cost of kosher meat.

Rubashkin pay £5 an hour to their chicken pluckers. How much would you want to be paid to sit day after day in Iowa plucking chickens?

We cannot justify paying as little as we do because of the true cost of plundering the resources of the world is far greater than the £4.99 we might splash out on a T-shirt.

We cannot justify it because the true cost of a litre of diesel is far greater than £1.20 or even the £1.30 that is around the corner.

There is as Heshcel puts it blood in our dollars.

We are denuding our planet of natural resources and we are oppressing the poorest on our planet by forcing them-to turn these natural resources into consumables for our amusement and entertainment.

We assume our food, like the manna in the midbar, arrives miraculously and we drive down our prices because it makes us feel better.

We assume that clothes come ready made, without a sweatshop of Chinese tailors or Bangledeshi seamstresses having to pour over them.

We need, desperately, to being to take seriously the true cost of consumption.

We have become, since I have arrived here at New London, a Fair Trade Synagogue.

It's an embarssment, frankly.We get a certificate. You can see it in the kitchen. It means that we promise to serve only fair-trade coffee and chocolate, as long as its not too difficult for us to get these items.

How hard is that?

We need something far deeper

We need to relook at how much we really need to consume, compare it to how much food we throw away rotten, or clothes lying ever un-worn in our wardrobes.It's easy to point a finger at Rubashkin.

And Ido.

But we all need to take responsibility for the pressure put on suppliers of consumables to feed us, cloth us, tend our every whim.

We need to conduct personal consumption audits.

And we need to fear God.

veyareita me-eloheicha

For, in the final moments, our excesses of consumption and the oppression of the poor and the needy labourers we have all effectively imprisoned with our will to consume will stand before us, stacked up among the debits of our


Shabbat shalom


Anonymous said...

Good article. It's actually Postville, I've been there as a computer systems supplier, in 2003. The plant operations seemed a little odd (to a non-Jew) but I didn't see any worker abuse, in fact I saw friendliness. But I was only on the beef side of the plant.

Anonymous said...

The name of the town in Iowa is Postville.

Stan A. said...

I talk to my Grandparents in Postville at least 3 times a week. They told me they are friends with a woman, in her late 50s, who works at AgriProcessors to this day. She told them that all these accusations on exploiting workers and minimum wage are all false. The supervisors are professional, and although the work is demanding, she hasn’t experienced any abuse or anything improper.

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