‘We Are Their Slaves’ won an international journalism award

On May 14, 2009, Streetvibes editor, Gregory Flannery, accepted the Best Feature Story award from the International Network of Street Papers (INSP) for the June 2008 article ‘We Are Their Slaves.’

‘We Are Their Slaves’

Cincinnati Processing workers relax outside but the pace inside can be dangerously fast. Photo by Andrew Anderson.

Cincinnati Processing workers relax outside but the pace inside can be dangerously fast. Photo by Andrew Anderson.

If they treat citizens this way, imagine how it is for immigrants

By Gregory Flannery, Editor

Your boss stops by unexpectedly, sees a mess in your apartment and punishes you by deducting $50 from your next paycheck. Fortunately he didn’t see the beer cans in your trash – or your boyfriend hiding in the closet; either of those could have gotten you fired.

At the meatpacking plant where you work, the production line runs so fast that you can’t keep up the pace. When pork falls on the floor, supervisors tell you to pick it up and wrap it for the grocery store without cleaning it. You’re still not working fast enough; the supervisor tells you to move as fast as you do when you’re having sex.

If your child is sick and you miss a day of work, you not only don’t get paid for that shift; a $50 fine is deducted from your paycheck. If you quit before six months, a $200 fine is deducted from your last check.

This isn’t a sweatshop in a Third World country; it’s a job in suburban Cincinnati. A Streetvibes investigation of complaints by workers and concerns raised by union and religious activists has found conditions comparable to indentured servitude; indeed some of the workers refer to themselves as “slaves.”

After months of trying to work with the companies to resolve the complaints, activists and union officials are now appealing to the public to demand action. But they’re not putting all their hopes on public outrage; they’ve also taken their concerns to the FBI. Streetvibes has learned that an FBI agent met May 21 with an organizer for the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), an expert on human trafficking who works for the Cincinnati YWCA and two workers lured here from Puerto Rico with the promise of good jobs.

‘Like a crazy house’

The people of Puerto Rico are U.S. citizens and taxpayers; they need no permission to work in Ohio or Kentucky. That doesn’t mean getting here is easy. That’s where Diverse Personnel Co. – also known as Able/Diverse Personnel Co. — comes in. Based in Fort Wright, Ky., the temporary-employment agency recruits Puerto Ricans for jobs on the mainland, offering housing and transportation.

Willie Rodriguez, the founder and owner of the company, declined requests for an interview. But his attorney, Michael S. Glassman, sent a statement to Streetvibes. Rodriguez came to the United States from Cuba with his mother in 1980, according to Glassman.

“Mr. Rodriguez and his family came to the U.S. with no money, but with the knowledge that they had their freedom and could work for anything they wanted to achieve,” the letter says. “Mr. Rodriguez has not stopped working and dreaming since he arrived in the U.S. He started (Diverse Personnel Co.) with the purpose of helping individuals from Puerto Rico get work with employers in the U.S. and making available to them on a short-term basis, if they desired, a furnished place to live and transportation to and from work.”

But what might have seemed a dream for Rodriguez plays out as an “inescapable nightmare” for his employees, according to Ellen Dienger, an organizer for the UFCW. In a flier detailing complaints about the temp agency, Dienger describes conditions far different from those promised in advertisements in Puerto Rico.

“Sometimes people don’t even make enough to buy groceries for the week and have to go starving or living off their fellow workers,” the flier says. “Able/Diverse places anywhere from four to six workers into an apartment and up to 12 in a house, many of which are vacant of all household furniture and appliances except for a mattress on the floor to sleep on.”

Immanuel Ortiz Santiago, a former Able/Diverse Personnel employee who now lives in Middletown, says he believed the promises of a better life when he signed up to come to Cincinnati in 2006. But instead Santiago says he found himself living with 11 other men in a house in downtown Covington. With the thermostat locked, the house was cold in winter, he says.

“I turned the oven on to warm the house,” he says. “A lot of the people were so cold they wore their coats in the house. You’ve got to cover up the windows with blankets. You look at our house – it’s like a crazy house.”

The employment company charged Santiago $135 a week for rent, he says – even though he sometimes received few hours of work.

“Let’s say you get $60 – you still got to pay $135,” he says. “I got one check for $6.40 for the week. That week I worked one day or two days, but they still charged the rent.”

He shows a reporter a pay stub marked no. 2784, dated Nov. 29, 2006, showing Santiago’s net pay as $6.40.

Dienger’s flier says Able/Diverse charged up to $6,000 per month in rent for some houses. In Santiago’s case, 12 people paid $135 a week for rent totaling $6,480. The amounts charged are excessive, according to Don Sherman, director of the Cincinnati Interfaith Workers Center.

“When they get to the United States, they’re put into these apartments or houses,” he says. “I’ve been in some of the apartments. They’re four or five to an apartment, but there are only two bedrooms. Some of them are paying $100 or more a week to live in the apartment. They wouldn’t pay the owner of the apartment; they would pay Diverse Personnel. They were paying up to $1,600 for an apartment in downtown Covington that would seem to be in the market of $500.”

While the company’s lawyer says the housing arrangements are optional, Dienger, Sherman and some of the workers say workers were told they had no choice but to live where Diverse Personnel Co. told them.

‘Do what he says’

Employer-managed housing. Photo by Andrew Anderson.

Diverse Personnel houses some workers in these apartments. Photo by Andrew Anderson.

High rents and crowded conditions aren’t the only complaints about the housing. Employees have to sign contracts and comply with house rules that would offend most people’s sense of personal freedom. Copies of documents obtained by Streetvibes include these restrictions:

  • “It is the responsibility of those residing in the company’s apartments to maintain and clean the interior as well as the exterior of the apartments. The first time that the facilities are found dirty, a warning will be given. The second time this occurs, we will deduct $25 per person. The third time we will deduct $50 per person.”
  • “Beer cans, liquor or drugs are not permitted in the house or in the areas surrounding it.”
  • “As an adult, your behavior should be the best. No fighting or discussion. If there are problems, we will call the police, no questions asked.”
  • “If you do not show up for work without giving notice previously, $50 will be taken from your paycheck.”
  • “Every apartment has a lead. The lead is in charge of the house. You have to do what the lead says. He will talk for Willy (Rodriquez).”
  • “Men are not permitted in the apartments of the women, and women are not permitted in the apartments of the men.”
  • “The employee shall not reveal, discuss or communicate to any other person, firm or company in any moment, form or means, direct or indirectly, the nature, class or description of the affairs related to the business of the company … independent of whether these are of a confidential nature or not.”
  • “If you are fired from your place of work, we will evaluate the situation, and we will notify if you will be transported to another place or if you have to leave the apartment where you reside immediately.”
  • “If you decide to leave before your six months, the contract is terminated with (Diverse Personnel Co.), your last check will be retained until everything is discounted from your check, including the $200 that will be discounted for breaking the contract.”

The rules are so stringent that workers and families have found themselves evicted without proper legal notice and, unable to speak English, have no idea what to do next, according to the UFCW.

“In every case we have come across so far, as soon as a person is fired by the company, they throw them out of the apartments within just a few days, sometimes that same night, with the only options of going directly to the airport, a shelter or out on the street,” the union flier says.

Santiago, 26, says he saw it happen.

“They had a couple, the guy was sick from the back pain,” he says. “They fired him. The girlfriend started asking what happened to him. They fired her, too. Then they give him one day to get out of the apartment. The next day they started throwing everything – throwing this, throwing all their stuff and saying, ‘You got to go! You got to go!’ They took everything like the groceries and the clothes and put it out on the street. They didn’t speak English, they didn’t have no money, they didn’t know no one here. They started crying to me. They don’t want to live in the street.”

Santiago, who speaks English, says that some of the company’s behavior simply mystified him. He gives a reporter a pay stub dated April 25, 2007. For 47 hours, his net pay was $204. The first problem? The check lists his address as an apartment complex in Park Hills, Ky. – but Santiago says he was living and working in Middletown at the time.

“It’s a fake address,” he says. “I never lived there.”

The second problem? The pay stub indicates Santiago is married and has five income-tax exemptions. Neither is true, he says.

“I know this is fraud because you’re lying,” Santiago says. “The federal income tax thinks I’m living in Kentucky, I am married and I have five children. They don’t just do that to me. They do that to a lot of people.”

When he applied for unemployment compensation from the state of Ohio, Santiago says state officials told him they had no record of his having worked in this state.

Sleeping on the floor

The paycheck gives the address of the apartment to someone who never lived there.  The pay stub also shows that this person is married and has five children, which he denies.  Photo courtesy of UFCW.

The paycheck gives the address of the apartment to someone who never lived there. The pay stub also shows that this person is married and has five children, which he denies. Photo courtesy of UFCW.

Santiago’s girlfriend, Jasmine Rivera, whom he met after coming here to work, is a former employee of Able Personnel Co., which might or might not be the same as Diverse. The relationship between the Diverse and Able companies is murky. The two companies share the same address, and when a reporter tried in vain to reach Willie Rodriguez on the phone, he was told the two companies are one and the same. The letter from Michael S. Glassman, Rodriguez’s lawyer, also failed to make the relationship clear.

“For the last several months, Mr. Rodriguez and the owner of Able Management have tried to operate jointly under a newly formed entity doing business as The Diverse Personnel Co (‘TDPC’) but recently have decided to no longer operate in this fashion,” the letter says. “It is Mr. Rodriguez’s intent to return to doing business on his own with his original company.”

Rivera’s description of her experience with the Able Personnel Co. sounds similar to others’ accounts of working for Diverse Personnel Co. After arriving here, many workers find themselves struggling to get by, she says.

“A lot of people go to the Salvation Army for food because they’ve got to send money to their families,” Rivera says. “After my brother and my mom left the job, they charged them $200 because they supposedly broke the contract.”

Rivera, 22, arrived from Puerto Rico in May 2007.

“Some guy from the company goes to Puerto Rico,” she says. “He pays $50 for every person who got sent here. They have a person who saw you in the street or something and they told you about this company. They say they pay for your housing, and they give you transportation. But they don’t say you have to pay for it from your paycheck. Once people get here, they find out. One of the guys who used to work for Able had to sleep on the floor for three months when he got here.”

Rivera says that when she and her family expressed a desire to live in an apartment of their own choosing, company officials said such a move would cost them their jobs.

“They bring people from Puerto Rico to here – and then they throw them in the streets,” she says.

The UFCW flier echoes Rivera’s allegations.

“In one instance, Able/Diverse Personnel told the workers they could leave but they would have to continue to pay for rent at the company apartments or they would be fired,” the flier says.

Contracts with Diverse require workers to pay $7 per person per day for transportation to work.

“It’s less than one mile from the apartment to the job,” Santiago says.

As with the rent charges, the transportation “service” appears to be lucrative for the employment agency.

“They also charge folks $7 a day in transportation fees, even if their worksite is only one mile away, and they take groups of folks in buses or vans,” the UFCW says.

Not all of the workers are Puerto Ricans. Jackie Robinson (not his real name) says he worked in the Salvadoran secret service before obtaining political asylum in the United States. Assigned to a job at Cincinnati Processing, a company that processes pork for the Kroger Co., Robinson explained through an interpreter what he thinks of the working conditions.

“So pretty much we are slaves,” he says. “If something happens to us, we get fired and they get somebody else. They are making more money off us, and we are their slaves making all their money.”

Union organizer Ellen Eienger has been helping Latino workers. Photography by Andrew Anderson.

Union organizer Ellen Eienger has been helping Latino workers. Photography by Andrew Anderson.

‘I saw many get hurt’

It was working conditions at Cincinnati Processing that first prompted workers last year to contact the Southwest Ohio Workers Center, affiliated with UFCW, and the Interfaith Workers Center.

“Starting about August of last year, we heard some complaints from immigrant workers about how they were treated at Cincinnati Processing,” Sherman says. “We felt the best way to address the problem was through the community, so we jointly formed the Southwest Ohio Workers’ Rights Board with religious and community activists who in December held a hearing with six workers. They described the situation at Cincinnati Processing.

“This one woman had diabetes but they wouldn’t let her take her medicine. The supervisors only let her take the medicine at certain times. They had several supervisors who would make decisions on who would take breaks. Some workers were not even allowed to take breaks, and they were working sometimes 72 hours a week.”

In January, the Workers’ Rights Board sent Cincinnati Processing and the Kroger Co. a lengthy list of workers’ complaints: “Work necessary for two workers is done by one. … Supervisors have come to work drunk and drink on the job. Supervisors asked employees to perform sexual acts. Supervisors imply that this is the only way they will receive favorable treatment. … The supervisors harassed, humiliated and intimidated some employees through verbal abuse. Employees who approach supervisors with sincere complaints and/or suggestions for improvement are disrespected, i.e., they are threatened with termination or cursed at.”

The board requested a meeting to discuss the complaints. In a Jan. 30 reply, Dennis Hilgeman, general manager of Cincinnati Processing, said thanks – but no thanks.

“While the company appreciates your bringing these allegations to its attention, it would be inappropriate for the company to meet or otherwise deal with your organization about matters involving its employees,” Hilgeman wrote. “The company has retained an independent investigator to investigate the complaints raised in the report.”

Lynn D. Pundzak, an attorney hired by Cincinnati Processing to conduct the investigation, referred a reporter’s questions to company attorney Jim Mills. He in turn relayed to Hilgeman a request for an interview and a copy of the investigator’s report. In letters relayed by Mills to Streetvibes, Hilgeman declined both requests.

Hilgeman’s letter to the Southwest Ohio Workers’ Rights Board (SOWRB) used the word “complaints,” but in his May 20 reply to Streetvibes, he bristles at the use of the term.

“No interview is called for,” Hilgeman writes. “The company is somewhat puzzled by the use of the word ‘complaints’ with reference to SOWRB. It is the company’s understanding that at most SOWRB received allegations from former employees, who insisted on anonymity. … In addition, it was obvious that SOWRB accepted as true whatever was told to them, even though many of the allegations were obviously false and others displayed a complete misunderstanding of how the meat processing industry works and how it is regulated. It was clear that SOWRB was either hopelessly naïve or so unfairly partisan that they had no concern for the truth.”

But Hilgeman is wrong. Not all the complaints about Cincinnati Processing have been given on condition of anonymity. One of the workers who complained about the company was Aide Rodriguez, who was fired in October 2007. The UFCW provided a copy of Rodriguez’s statement, titled “Cincinnati Processing Worker I Testimony.”

“When I started working, I was never properly trained on how to use the knives or how to use the chemicals,” the statement says. “I received no orientation whatsoever, and I saw many people get hurt on the job because of improper training and because of the pressure to work too fast.”

Aide Rodriguez’s statement contains an accusation, repeated by other workers, that prompted Cincinnati Processing to threaten a lawsuit against the SOWRB.

“There were also times when meat would fall on the floor, and they would just pick up the meat and put it back on the line. … One thing that’s for sure is that, after working at Cincinnati Processing, I will never buy meat from Kroger, because the condition in which the meat is handled is very bad,” Aide Rodriguez’s statement says.

Maria Gomez (not her real name) of Fairfield wrapped meat at Cincinnati Processing until she was fired last fall. Speaking through an interpreter, she makes the same charge about sanitation at the plant.

“A lot of times, if the meat fell on the floor, they wouldn’t do what they’re supposed to do,” Gomez says. “They’re supposed to spray it, but they’d just put it in the packages. I saw it with my own eyes. Even the supervisor saw it. The new people hadn’t been trained. They picked it up, and the supervisors didn’t say anything. It would already be on the Styrofoam plates. The whole plate would fall on the floor, and they would pick everything up, wrap it up and send it to Kroger.”

“It’s pretty much every day. They would yell and make them go so fast, and people couldn’t even stretch their backs. The meat would fall on the floor all the time because they would work so fast.”

‘They’re coming’

Sexual harassment was common at Cincinnati Processing, according to Gomez and Jackie Robinson.

“When the supervisors saw that Dennis gave me a piece of candy, they said there must be something going on,” Gomez says. “They would say, ‘Did you go under his desk and do something for him?’ I liked the work and really enjoyed my job. I just didn’t understand the way they treated me, the way they harassed me sexually and made us work so hard.

“They’d say, ‘Work as fast as you move at night. Move as fast as you do when you’re having sex.’ “Sometimes injuries resulted from pressure to work faster, Gomez says.

“One day they had a lot of meat to cut,” she says. “They were cutting pork feet. They had a lot of feet to cut. One of the supervisors told one of the workers, ‘You’ve got to go faster! You’ve got to go faster!’ He cut himself. He lost part of his finger. They took him to the hospital. They did not call an ambulance. They didn’t stop the line. They didn’t clean the knives. They didn’t do anything.”

In a letter to Streetvibes, Hilgeman, the plant manager, briefly defended the company’s safety record.

“As you might expect, there have been cuts from time to time, and the company has complied with all OSHA record keeping requirements,” the letter says.

The local office of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has no record of safety violations at Cincinnati Processing, according to Area Director Dick Gilchrist.

“We have nothing on that company, and normally we are familiar with meatpackers because there aren’t many of them left, and they also tend to be high-hazard industries,” he says.

Asked to respond to allegations of unsanitary food handling, Hilgeman writes, “Cincinnati Processing has an unquestioned record of providing quality services and of compliance with rigorous safety and sanitation standards. The company’s operations and records are closely monitored by onsite USDA inspectors.”

But several workers say that supervisors know when USDA or Kroger personnel will be inspecting, and the operation temporarily improves. An e-mail criticizing the company, circulated by members of the Workers’ Rights Board, says visits by Kroger personnel were announced in advance.

“Obviously, Kroger employees stop by the plant to inspect the working conditions and standards but the employees at Cincinnati Processing explained these visits are planned in advance,” the statement says. “Management and supervisors know in advance when Kroger representatives are coming and, of course, make sure everything is perfect on those days.”

The same is true of inspections by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), according to Gomez.

“They came in and checked things, but they always knew before they were going to come,” she says. “Dennis would say, ‘They’re coming,’ and everything would be done slower. They would clean.”

In his letter, Hilgeman says the “false statements” about the company should be checked against USDA records.

“It would be reckless for anyone to repeat or otherwise publish these false allegations without checking the company’s record of USDA compliance,” the letter says.

Asked for copies of USDA inspections, Hilgeman says the company doesn’t have them.

“These are kept by the USDA, not the company,” he writes.

Louis Leny, Midwest regional manager for USDA, says all records requests must go through the agency’s office in Washington, D.C.

“Any request for records has to go through the FOIA process,” he says. “I’m not authorized to release anything.”

A Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to USDA wasn’t answered in time for this edition.

Hilgeman denied a reporter’s request to tour the plant.

Kroger officials have not responded to the complaint report by the Workers’ Rights Board, according to Sherman. Kroger representatives did not return a reporter’s calls.

See you in court

The UFCW is the legal bargaining agent for workers at Cincinnati Processing — but in name only, according to Bill Dudley, director of organizing and strategic operations for Local 1099. The union won a certification election at the plant more than 10 years ago, but only after a protracted legal battle, with the National Labor Relations Board impounding the ballots for three years, he says.

By the time UFCW was certified as the union at Cincinnati Processing, most of the employees originally involved in the campaign had moved on. The union never succeeded in negotiating a contract with the company, Dudley says.

“Really we’re still the union there,” he says. “We never de-certified. We just haven’t had a lot of contact until recently.”

Dienger says the union has initiated formal contact with management and hopes to begin negotiating soon.

When it comes to complaints against Diverse Personnel Co., which provides temporary workers for Cincinnati Processing, Club Chef, the Castellini Co. and others, Dudley says the union isn’t even trying to recruit members.

“We’re not organizing at Diverse,” he says. “We would just like to help the workers. I think maybe there are things happening that are not legal.”

A legal fight of one sort or another is almost certain to result from the effort, whether it involves the FBI, federal regulatory agencies or defamation lawsuits. In addition to the threat by Cincinnati Processing to sue the Southwest Ohio Workers’ Rights Board, that company’s lawyer and the attorney for Diverse Personnel Co. intimated in letters to Streetvibes that it risked legal action in pursuing this story.

Jackie Robinson, who worked for both companies, says he decided to speak out in the hope that other workers will be spared the death threats, sexual harassment and other problems he experienced. He describes the day when he drew the line.

“They gave me a lot of meat, and the supervisor looked at me and said, ‘You’re really a woman, you’re an animal, you’re good for nothing and you’ve got to do the work that I say, that I give you,’ “ Robinson says.

“And I told him, ‘Look, I’ve seen you look at the women. You yell and you’re not going to yell at me ever again, because in the United States there’s no such thing as slavery; there’s no such thing as a group of slaves. … The next time that you scream at me, I’m going to get a ride out of here and call the sheriff.’ “The confrontation worked – at least temporarily.

“Everybody stopped for a number of minutes and looked up, and they said, ‘That old fuck has quite a temper’ — in front of everybody. Then that man stopped talking to me for six days.”

Now Robinson and his co-workers say they want a solution that lasts.