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Cleveland, OH — Michael Grabell at ProPublica, an organization for independent investigative journalism, published a new piece highlighting the depth of exploitation that immigrant workers are experiencing at Case Farms chicken processing plants in Ohio and North Carolina.
“The story of Osiel López Pérez and other Case Farms workers is far too hidden, and far too commonplace in America today,” said Lynn Tramonte, Director of Ohio’s Voice. “It’s outrageous that companies like Case Farms are treating workers like machines, using them in overdrive until they are ‘broken,’ and that the Trump Administration is supporting this through its tactic of deportation intimidation. These stories and realities need to be told; these practices by corporations and the government need to be exposed.”
Grabell’s article, “Sold for Parts,” tells a story that is shockingly brutal and, unfortunately, still shockingly common today.
Case Farms has built its business by recruiting some of the world’s most vulnerable immigrants, who endure harsh and at times illegal conditions that few Americans would put up with. When these workers have fought for higher pay and better conditions, the company has used their immigration status to get rid of vocal workers, avoid paying for injuries and quash dissent.
The article starts with the story of Osiel López Pérez, a young man who fled Guatemala after his mother’s murder and lost his leg while working at the Case Farms plan in Canton. Grabell’s research makes it clear that López Pérez’ treatment was not an isolated case, but part of a broader practice of shortcuts to drive profits, extreme safety violations, and worker abuse at Case Farms in both of these states.
Despite racking up more Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) violations than any competitor, Case Farms continues to operate its factories of abuse, and look for even more vulnerable workers to exploit.
The fines and the citations against Case Farms have continued to accumulate. Last September, OSHA determined that the company’s line speeds and work flow were so hazardous to workers’ hands and arms that it should “investigate and change immediately” nearly all the positions on the line. As the company fights the fines, it finds new ways to keep labor costs down. For a time, after the Guatemalan workers began to organize, Case Farms recruited Burmese refugees. Then it turned to ethnic Nepalis expelled from Bhutan, who today make up nearly 35 percent of the company’s employees in Ohio. “It’s an industry that targets the most vulnerable group of workers and brings them in,” Debbie Berkowitz, OSHA’s former senior policy adviser, told me. “And when one group gets too powerful and stands up for their rights they figure out who’s even more vulnerable and move them in.”
The article explains that increasing immigrant deportations–a policy the Trump Administration began implementing on Day One–further skews the employer-employee power imbalance in favor of abusive employers.
Thirty years ago, Congress passed an immigration law mandating fines and even jail time for employers who hire unauthorized workers, but trivial penalties and weak enforcement have allowed employers to evade responsibility. Under President Obama, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agreed not to investigate workers during labor disputes. Advocates worry that President Trump, whose administration has targeted unauthorized immigrants, will scrap those agreements, emboldening employers to simply call ICE anytime workers complain.
While the president stirs up fears about Latino immigrants and refugees, he ignores the role that companies, particularly in the poultry and meatpacking industry, have played in bringing those immigrants to the Midwest and the Southeast. The newcomers’ arrival in small, mostly white cities experiencing industrial decline in turn helped foment the economic and ethnic anxieties that brought Trump to office. Osiel ended up in Ohio by following a generation of indigenous Guatemalans, who have been the backbone of Case Farms’ workforce since 1989, when a manager drove a van down to the orange groves and tomato fields around Indiantown, Florida, and came back with the company’s first load of Mayan refugees.
David Leopold, Cleveland-based immigration lawyer and past president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said:
If Trump, Kelly and Sessions are serious about cracking down on ‘bad hombres’ they would start by targeting bad actor employers who brazenly exploit undocumented immigrants to turn a profit. How many more men, women and children will have to be injured, maimed or killed at dangerous worksites and meat packing plants before the administration stops demonizing immigrants and starts protecting all workers?
Read Grabell’s entire piece here.