This story was originally published Sept. 5, 1999.
Editor's note: ConAgra no longer owns or operates meatpacking plants.
OMAHA -- Lured north of the border by the hope of a better life, a largely Hispanic work force labors in Nebraska meatpacking plants under conditions some critics describe as a classic case of worker exploitation.
Immigrant workers, they say, perform demanding tasks in a hazardous environment for relatively low wages, working lengthy hours on punishing production lines.
In some Omaha plants, workers say they're given inadequate bathroom breaks. As a result, they say they end up urinating in their pants while working on the line.
"It's a lot like slavery," Father Damian Zuerlein said of working conditions for some of his parishioners. He serves a predominantly Mexican congregation of 1,500 families at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in south Omaha.
The state's meatpackers rely on a large influx of immigrant Mexicans, many in the country illegally, for physically demanding work at depressed wages, said Lincoln workers' compensation attorney Rod Rehm.
It's his experience with Nebraska meatpacking plants that they care "very little about their safety and work conditions," he said. But representatives of two big industry names strongly disagreed. They said the safety and welfare of their workers is a vital company concern.
"Preventing employee injuries and illnesses is important to us from both a human and economic standpoint," summed up Gary Mickelson, a spokesman for IBP Inc. His company has six plants in Nebraska, all outside Omaha. They include large operations in Dakota City, Lexington and Madison. The company plans to add a new plant in Norfolk.
Meanwhile, in interviews conducted over six weeks with numerous Hispanics in Omaha and others familiar with the meatpacking industry, a litany of worker concerns emerged. Among them:
Speedy production lines increase safety hazards in an already dangerous workplace filled with sharp knives and hooks and sometimes slippery floors. Injury rates in meatpacking plants are the highest in U.S. manufacturing: Thirty-two of every 100 meatpacking workers nationally suffered occupational injuries or illnesses in 1997, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Wages are comparatively low -- averaging about $8 an hour -- and considerably less than they were in Omaha before plants depended on a Hispanic immigrant labor force.
Some laborers work on the production line up to 10 hours a day, six days a week.
The fast-paced production lines in some plants are "killing people slowly," said Sergio Sosa. He is attempting to organize Omaha's growing Hispanic community and its meatpacking workers from his base at Omaha Together One Community, an alliance of 38 church congregations.
Beyond the rigors of productionline work, said Milo Mumgaard, executive director of the Nebraska Appleseed Center for Law in the Public Interest, "people are not treated with a whole lot of dignity or respect."
While some criticisms are aimed at the industry as a whole, interviews for this story focused on Omaha plants, including the Nebraska Beef plant on South 36th Street.
Angel Rodriguez said he worked three or four years on the production line there.
"Many people had to pee in their clothes because the work goes so fast and there was no relief to go to the bathroom when you needed to," Rodriguez said.
Repeated efforts to reach Nebraska Beef management for comment received no response. Three telephone messages, an Aug. 17 letter with details about worker concerns and a letter faxed Thursday went unanswered. Plant officials were unavailable to talk to a Journal Star photographer who visited the plant on Thursday.
At ConAgra, which owns Northern States Beef in south Omaha, officials said the company has worked to address worker concerns.
"We've augmented our safety programs," said Kathryn DankoLord, vice president of human resources for ConAgra Beef Cos. in Greeley, Colo. The company also has established a hot line for employees to anonymously call in their concerns about working conditions, she said. ConAgra's largest Nebraska operation is a Monfort plant in Grand Island.
Lincoln attorney Richard Endacott, who represents Monfort in workers' compensation cases, said his client "bends over backwards to assist injured workers," including accommodating their needs for light duty when prescribed by doctors.
In some respects, Hispanic meatpacking workers represent the latest wave of a vulnerable immigrant work force, following in the footsteps of the Irish, who were consigned to the least desirable jobs in the manufacturing sector, and the Chinese, who helped build the transcontinental railroad.
Like many immigrants who came before them, more than 20,000 Hispanics now call south Omaha home. They come largely out of desperation bred by poverty, for the same reasons they have always come: jobs, money, opportunity, education, family, hope. But mostly they come for the money.
While the average wage for Nebraska packinghouse production workers is about $8 an hour, starting wages have been as low as $6.50. Today they range near $7.50 an hour.
The huge turnover among immigrant workers tends to hold most wages near the bottom of the scale.
In the 1970s, when the work force was largely European-American and heavily unionized, average wages were closer to $12 an hour, said Lourdes Gouveia, a University of Nebraska at Omaha sociology professor and director of UNO's Chicano/Latino Studies.
"There is no doubt the industry is different today than it was in the 1970s," said IBP spokesman Mickelson.
"Today's plants are more efficient and involve more technology. Today's plants are also not burdened with the master labor contracts of the past."
Although low by U.S. standards, today's wages are attractive to impoverished Mexicans and other Latinos who cannot make as much money in their own countries -- if they can find jobs there.
Hence, the expectation of "an eternally replenishable" labor supply prompts some packing plants to treat workers "like replaceable widgets," said Mumgaard of the Appleseed Center.
Gouveia has researched the plight of Hispanics in the meatpacking industry for 10 years. Based on a 40-hour workweek, she said, the average $8-an-hour wage translates into about $17,000 a year - money that supports what is often a large family, sometimes split between here and Mexico.
Desperate for jobs and in many cases anxious to hide their illegal, or undocumented, status, "workers are under incredible pressure and fear," Gouveia said. "They are very vulnerable."
Jorge -- a fictitious name chosen to hide his identity and protect his job -- is a Mexican immigrant who said he works 10 hours a day, six days a week at an Omaha meatpacking plant, standing on the production line slicing meat off the bone with a knife.
The line operates at an unreasonable speed, he said through an interpreter during an interview one steamy summer night. People wear down, Jorge said, and workers often get hurt.
Eva -- another fictitious name -- is a recent immigrant from El Salvador who also works at an Omaha plant.
"We have to work hard and fast. Too fast. That is the problem," she said in English with occasional help from an interpreter. "People get hurt very frequently."
Eva said she hurt her back when she fell for the third time on a greasy floor. Despite written instructions from a doctor stating she should perform only "light duty," she said, she still stands on the production line for up to 10 hours a day, using a hook to move slabs of meat -- and taking pain pills.
The rate of occupational injuries or illnesses among U.S. meatpacking workers -- 32 of every 100 in 1997 -- is the highest in any manufacturing industry, even surpassing both construction and mining, according to OSHA statistics. Workplace injuries can develop into chronic health problems.
Eva's experience with her back injury is a common one, workers' compensation attorney Rehm said.
Once injured employees return to work, he said, some plants he is familiar with fail to honor work restrictions imposed by doctors.
"People making claims often are the first to get fired for little or no reason," he said.
Some Hispanics come to work "taped up like football players." It's called "work and hurt," Rehm said.
Often, those who file claims have trouble getting quality health care, he said, and when a worker has no family doctor, the company may pick the physician.
"There's a question whether some of those doctors go the extra mile," Rehm said.
But Endacott, who represents ConAgra meat companies, said Monfort policy requires injured workers to comply with restrictions set by doctors and report to management if supervisors attempt to require them to ignore those work restrictions.
"The company accommodates those workers with light duty," he said.
ConAgra "works very closely with doctors in returning people to the line," said Danko-Lord, the human resources vice president. "We are very diligent in working within the restrictions set by doctors."
And IBP's Mickelson said supervisors have been fired for not following such restrictions.
Yet even without accidents, the work takes a toll. Jorge and Eva show the large, hard knobs on their middle fingers -- the result, they said, of repeatedly using knives and hooks. Both Jorge and Eva agree with Angel Rodriguez on another point.
At their Omaha packing plants, they say, workers often have to "pee in their pants" because of inadequate bathroom breaks.
ConAgra spokeswoman Joan Lukas said production workers at its plants are given sufficient time for bathroom breaks. Mickelson said no IBP employees are ever refused permission to go the restroom, although they need to first notify their supervisor.
"There is no set time for a restroom break," he said. "We just do our best to accommodate the employee."
Although meatpacking work has never been easy, there are those who remember better days.
Now, "people are taken advantage of," said Manuel De Luna, who said he worked three winters in the old Wilson packing plant in Omaha during the 1970s. "They're working the heck out of them. One person is doing the work that two used to do. The way people are treated is real bad."
It wasn't always that way, he said.
"I think the average wage back then was about $12 an hour, and we had really good benefits. The company paid all my hospital costs for the birth of one child. I did not pay anything. We had good sick leave, health care, retirement."
Today, Jorge said he makes $9.25 an hour after 2 years on the job. He has made as much as $10, he said, but has to start again near the bottom of the wage scale after taking time once a year to visit family members, including his parents, in Mexico.
Eva said she is paid $9.05 an hour. When she returns from a scheduled trip home to visit family members in El Salvador, she said, her wages will be reduced to $7.50.
In the 1970s wages were pegged to inflation and climbed as high as $15 an hour for long-term workers, said Gouveia, the UNO professor.
Back then, De Luna said, workers were predominantly European Americans and had strong union representation. Today, none of Omaha's meatpacking plants -- as distinguished from processing ones -- is unionized.
Last year, Angel Rodriguez said, he was fired and thrown out of the Nebraska Beef packing plant after complaining about timely payment of overtime pay and suggesting the possibility of a work stoppage.
"We say, "If you're not paying overtime, we're not working,'" Rodriguez recalled during an interview at his small frame house in south Omaha. "I talked loud."
Later, when he and another worker who had complained were handed their paychecks, he said a foreman told them: "Here's your check. You're terminated. Leave the building."
Details of Rodriguez's claim were included in the Aug. 17 letter to Nebraska Beef, which did not respond.
Meanwhile, workers in several Omaha meatpacking plants are showing "active interest" in seeking representation by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, according to Rick Saalfeld of Omaha, international union representative.
"People are starting to demonstrate their interest," he said. "And we're interested in them."
Only a few of the meatpacking/ slaughter plants in Nebraska are unionized. They include IBP's plant in Dakota City, Monfort in Grand Island, Cargill's Excel plant in Schuyler and Farmland Foods in Crete.
Many workers are reluctant to speak up about working conditions in the meatpacking industry because they fear their undocumented status -- or the undocumented status of a relative or friend -- will come to the attention of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, said Zuerlein.
Jorge, who said he is here legally, said conditions at his plant are the worst for undocumented workers.
"Most supervisors know who is undocumented and who is not, and they treat them that way," he said. "Undocumented workers are afraid to complain. It's terrible for them."
He estimates 90 percent to 95 percent of the production workers at his plant are Mexican -- a substantial number of them here illegally.
At her plant, Eva said, almost all production workers are Hispanic, and every week there are new people working on the line.
When INS launched Operation Vanguard, its controversial 1998 strategy to identify undocumented Mexican workers in Nebraska packing plants, she said, 27 of the 60 workers on her production line received letters questioning their legal status.
Rehm, the workers' compensation attorney who has represented Hispanic workers at packing plants from Schuyler to Lexington, said he believes some plants "consciously realize that a lot of workers will never make a complaint or try to get paid" compensation for work-place injuries.
"It takes some courage to challenge management," he said.
Supervisors "play games" with worker complaints, Eva said.
"They just ask another supervisor. They play with the ball. They say if you don't like the work, there are 10 persons waiting to come in."
INS officials have estimated one of every four workers in packing plants in Nebraska and Iowa is undocumented.
Meatpacking officials say they do not knowingly hire illegal workers.
Among worker complaints, perhaps none has more far-reaching consequences than production-line speed.
It relates to worker safety, said UNO's Gouveia. It dictates how hard people have to work. It affects the availability of bathroom breaks in some plants.
And it also "raises some issues about the safety of the meat product," she suggested.
Studies show the faster the line speed, the higher the injury rate, said Rehm.
"Some people cut their hands when the work is fast," Jorge said.
Zuerlein said some workers in his congregation tell him they know when inspectors or visitors are about to enter their plant because the line suddenly slows down.
Production rates are "determined by industrial engineers who conduct studies on the workplace and determine the number of employees needed to safely, yet effectively, process certain product mixes," said IBP spokesman Mickelson.
Along with low wages, line speed is the key to industry profitability and therefore considered "non-negotiable," Gouveia said.
"The pressures to retain the pace are enormous. The industry is very much premised on high and relentless line speed."
Nevertheless, Mexicans living in poverty and hungry for jobs continue to be lured north by packing plant recruiting efforts promising $8 an hour and "easy work," Jorge said.
He said he walked 70 miles -- two days and two nights -- to reach the border when he entered the United States.
His wages, he said, are used to support his wife and two children in Omaha, and he also sends money to family members in Mexico. Since his wife is undocumented, he said, he does not claim her as a dependent on his income tax form.
"The wages are awfully good from their perspective," Rehm said. "But I feel they are exploited. And so are our communities when the plants drive wages down."
And what does Eva say?
"The work is very hard. I think the pay is not good, but not too bad."
Latinos, Gouveia said, "contribute an enormous amount to the success of this industry and, therefore, to the success of the economy of the state. For that they get remunerated very minimally."
"Most astonishing to me," she said, "is all the concern expressed by the congressional delegation, politicians and the public about issues relating to violation of immigration laws by these workers when so little is said, and so little effort is made by these same political figures, to concern themselves with all these issues affecting workers.
"No one touches the sacred cow."