Thursday, July 17, 2008

Agri

Cross-posted and updated from FedReb:

A statement on Agriprocessors by the Jewish Labor Committee. For those of you who don't know, Agri is the largest producer of kosher meat in the country, and it has a history of labor infractions and cruelty to the animals. A couple of months ago over 300 workers were arrested in a raid for being undocumented aliens, and two of Agri's staff members were recently arrested for helping them get fake documentation.

The situation has caused a good deal of reflection on the part of Jews who observe kashrut as to what kashrut really means and whether there should be an ethical component to it in addition to the ritual components - fairness to the workers and/or compassion for the animals, depending on the focus of the organization. I particularly support the efforts of the Conservative movement to develop a standard of ethical behavior that can be applied in kosher certification - it's called heksher tzedek (righteous certification) and a website explaining it is here. In addition, I applaud the efforts of other mainstream organizations, like BBYO and numerous Jewish summer camps, to place their values over their wallets and not to order meat from Agriprocessors until the mess up there is cleaned up.

The best coverage of this issue is found in the Hazon blog, the Jew and the Carrot. An interview with a labor activist currently working on this issue is found here. Yesterday they posted an interview with the lead organizer of Uri L'tzedek, a group made up primarily of Orthodox rabbinical students, which had been a lead voice on this issue in the Orthodox community (and there will be no positive change in the kosher slaughtering biz until the Orthodox community, the biggest customer base, demands it). Unfortunately, Uri L'tzedek has called off its boycott in the aftermath of the hiring by Agri of a compliance officer - not, mind you, any actual compliance. This strikes me as premature, to say the least.

Because it seems that, with the single exception of the hiring of this compliance officer, Agri's response has been more a PR campaign than an actual commitment to fix what's wrong. If you scroll down the BBYO article you'll notice what seems to be a coordinated critical response, which is probably the work of the PR firm that Rubashkin has recently hired to try to combat all the bad press. (And which apparently forged emails from one of Agri's strongest critics designed to make him look bad.) In keeping with this model, on Yom Kippur this year I will not be expressing regret for my sins or making an effort to change, but rather simply hiring a PR firm to claim that all statements about my sins constitute conviction before a full trial.

The other piece of this that needs attention is the people who were in the workforce there before the raids, the undocumented immigrants who are left with no income while they await deportation or other disposition of their cases. They are unable to work and are in great need. Donations to the Postville Food Pantry can be made to this address:

POSTVILLE FOOD PANTRY
c/o Pastor Steve Brackett, Treasurer
St. Paul Lutheran Church
116 East Military Road
Postville, IA 52162
{The food pantry's phone number is 563-864-7643}

I'm trying very hard not to draw any conclusions about Orthodox heksher in general from this incident. Despite their long history of bad actions, Agriprocessors makes it much easier for people to have access to kosher meat. All it needs to do (and it may be a lot) is fix its bad labor and animal practices, and I will be happy to support it once again. Until then, I'll do without.

1 comment:

Mary T said...

Not being Jewish, I can't speak to the kosher/holy aspects here--but I think any time you buy something from someone, you have a measure of 'clout' and you can use that to accomplish good. I would not shop in a store where I saw customers or workers treated poorly and I see no reason you should buy food from a company that mistreats workers. I think if this company is mainly selling kosher things--well then your community should have quite alot of clout with them.