Sunday, July 27, 2008

Iowa's Apartheid

POSTVILLE, Iowa — When federal immigration agents raided the kosher meatpacking plant here in May and rounded up 389 illegal immigrants, they found more than 20 under-age workers, some as young as 13.
This is the way apartheid works. The government--whether by design or accident--creates a class of disenfranchised laborers without stable communities or a ligitimate means to complain about their conditions. Employers then exploit these workers with a rapaciousness that makes one wonder whether these employers recognized their victims as fully human.

In South Africa, the government set up Bantustans (similar to American Indian reservations) as permanent residences for blacks in unproductive areas where there were no jobs. The people who lived in these Bantustans would then seek employment in cities and mines where they had no legal status and were brutally exploited by their employers. South Africa's government and society thus maintained a highly mobile and vulnerable working class without access to legal remedies for employer wrongdoing in the workplace.

That seems to be the model in Iowa and the rest of the U.S. Labor agents and word-of-mouth stories inform Latin Americans that good-paying jobs are available in the U.S. But our immigration system is designed to deny most of these potential emigrants legal entry or status. So they enter and reside illegally. Then they go to work for outfits like Agriprocessors, Inc. This is what happens:

A Guatemalan named Elmer L. who said he was 16 when he started working on the plant’s killing floors, said he worked 17-hour shifts, six days a week. In an affidavit, he said he was constantly tired and did not have time to do anything but work and sleep. “I was very sad,” he said, “and I felt like I was a slave.”

Others said they were sexually exploited. One immigrant was blindfolded with duct tape and struck with a meat hook. As Elmer later explained to authorities, “They told us they were going to call immigration if we complained.” And that is how it works.

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