Slaughterhouse owner: We are ethical people

Aaron Rubashkin, the owner of the embattled kosher slaughterhouse Agriprocessors, denies he has engaged in unethical labor practices and blames the failure of U.S. immigration policy for his mostly illegal workforce.

In the first substantive comments by an Agriprocessors representative since the government rounded up more than a third of its employees on immigration charges in a May 12 raid at its Iowa plant, Rubashkin flatly rejected allegations of worker mistreatment and plant mismanagement.

“Everything is a lie,” Rubashkin told JTA.

In a more than hourlong interview last week outside his Brooklyn butcher shop in the Orthodox enclave of Borough Park, the 80-year-old Ru-bashkin was visibly angered by the flood of allegations that have imperiled his business, the country’s largest kosher slaughterhouse.

The raid has reduced Agriprocessors’ output significantly and sparked fears of a national shortage of kosher meat.

A government affidavit cites claims that methamphetamine was being produced at the company’s Postville, Iowa, plant, that undocumented workers were paid $5 per hour, and that a Jewish kosher supervisor taped a worker’s eyes and abused him with a meat hook.

In the weeks since the raid, workers have also charged that female employees were offered improved working conditions in exchange for sexual favors and that underage workers were employed at the plant in defiance of Iowa labor laws.

“We got 21 or 23 inspectors,” Ru-bashkin said in a thick Yiddish accent. “Every minute the plant is open, there is USDA inspector. We got maybe 30 rabbis. How can we do something which is wrong? If I want to, God forbid! We are ethical people. We don’t do no injustice to nobody, not to a cat.”

Rubashkin acknowledged that he was concerned the company may face criminal charges, but said he was “a hundred percent confident” that he would prevail in court.

“I believe in the American system, and I did nothing wrong,” said Rubashkin, who opened his shop in 1953, the same year he emigrated from Russia.

Agriprocessors sells meat products under various labels that include Aaron’s Best, Rubashkin’s, Shor Habor, Iowa’s Best Beef and Supreme Kosher.

Rubashkin sees himself as a victim of an immigration system that Washington has steadfastly refused to fix. He has a bitter opinion of the Jewish social justice activists who have spoken out most vigorously since the raid.

The Conservative movement has urged kosher consumers to “consider” whether they should purchase Agriprocessors’ products, while Uri L’tzedek, a social justice initiative launched by liberal Orthodox rabbinical students, circulated a petition threatening a boycott of the company.

The Orthodox Union, one of two kosher certification agencies supervising Agriprocessors, has said it would withdraw supervision if charges are brought against the company.

Labor Ready, an Iowa company that supplied replacement workers for Agriprocessors, pulled out its people last week, the Des Moines Register reported.

“There was a concern on the part of my field operators about the safety and care afforded to our workers,” said Stacey Burke, a representative of Labor Ready’s parent company, TrueBlue. “We felt as if there was a violation on our core principles.”

Burke would not specify about the violations.

Ben Harris

Ben Harris is a JTA correspondent.