Monday, November 24, 2008

Hard Labor At A Tender Age Part one of two

There are 57 days until Jan. 20, 2009.


Hard Labor At A Tender Age Part one of two

Raid at poultry plant reveals problem beyond illegal immigration. Workers as young as 15 were found on the line.

By Franco Ordonez and Ames Alexander

Charlotte Observer

November 09, 2008


GREENVILLE, S.C. Four months after turning 15, Lucero Gayton began work on the night shift at a House of Raeford Farms chicken plant.


Starting at 11 each night, when most girls her age were asleep, the shy teenager with brown eyes was working 10- hour shifts, wielding a sharp knife, cutting muscles from thousands of freshly killed chickens.


"I was scared that I'd cut my finger off," she told the Observer. "I did cut myself a few times."


Lucero lost her job last month in the largest immigration raid ever conducted in the Carolinas. She was one of six underage workers, ages 15 and 16, found among the 331 arrested workers at the Greenville plant.


Underage workers are a familiar sight on House of Raeford production lines, and not only in Greenville.


More than 20 former and current workers at three House of Raeford plants - in Greenville, West Columbia, S.C., and Raeford, N.C. - told the Observer that the poultry company frequently hired underage workers.


Six of them, all supervisors, said that top managers allowed the hiring to secure cheap, compliant labor.


Because of the hazards, federal and state labor laws prohibit anyone under 18 from working on a poultry processing line.


Former supervisor Eric Lawson started work at the company's West Columbia plant last year. He said a plant official told him: "Most of (the workers) are illegal or underage. So they won't question anything."


Lawson said he was forced out of his job in April after arguments with his supervisors.


In a February series on working conditions in the poultry industry, the Observer reported that House of Raeford had been cited for 130 workplace safety violations since 2000 - among the most of any U.S.

poultry company. The Raeford-based company is one of the nation's top chicken and turkey producers, with about 6,000 employees and eight processing plants in the Carolinas and Louisiana.


Following last month's raid, the U.S. Department of Labor launched an investigation into possible child labor violations. Miguel Pascal, who got a job at House of Raeford's West Columbia plant when he was 15, described it as a perilous environment, but an easy place to find work.


"Nobody asked me how old I was," he said.


In a written response Friday, House of Raeford said it follows the law. Every applicant, the company said, must present identification showing he or she is 18 or older.

The company said it's required to accept documents that appear to be legitimate and can't request additional documentation.


"Unfortunately, the documentation the employees present is not always genuine, or accurate, even if it appears to be," the company said. "Also, as we all know, not everyone tells the truth all the time."


Coming to America


Lucero's father never wanted her to come to the United States - at least not until she was 18.


When Lucero called him from her mother's home in Oaxaca, Mexico, before making the trip across the desert, Tranquilino Gayton told her not to come. He already lived in Greenville and sent money home.


"You're too young," he said he told Lucero. "The trip is dangerous. Stay in school. You need to study."


But Lucero was determined to accompany her older sister, who had their father's permission. She knew her family had financial problems. Her mother would sometimes cry when there wasn't enough money for food or medicine. She wanted to help.


Lucero and her father argued for three weeks. She threatened to move to another city if her father didn't welcome her in Greenville.


"I thought. at least she will be with me," Gayton said.


"OK," he remembers saying. "You can come."


In early 2007, with the help of a human smuggler, Lucero traveled from Mexico to Greenville.


Hundreds of immigrants have taken a similar path to find work at House of Raeford plants. The company, many workers have told the Observer, has had a reputation as an easy place for the undocumented to get jobs.


When Lucero visited the Greenville plant, however, a woman behind the desk told her she was too young.


The staffer paused, Lucero said, and then made a proposition. "If you pay $300," Lucero recalled the woman saying, "I can change your birth date."


In a statement, House of Raeford said that it's illegal and against company policy to ask or require an applicant to pay to be hired. The company said it has fired human resources employees whom it discovered selling jobs.


"If she (Lucero) submitted false documentation then she has broken the law, as well as company policy," the company said. "We have audited our I-9 records (employment eligibility forms) and are not aware that any employee who presented documentation showing that he or she was less than 18 years old at the time of hiring was given a job with the company."


Teen on the line


Lucero barely looks her age sitting on her living room couch. With her legs propped up, she twiddles her ponytail while talking about her friends from back home.


While most of her former classmates were playing sports, flirting with boys and attending dances, Lucero was pulling overnight shifts in a cold concrete factory, helping to turn thousands of birds into convenient cuts for restaurants, stores and cafeterias.


"I don't dance much here," she said.


Lucero, now 16, worked at the plant, known locally as Columbia Farms, for about 18 months, first cutting muscles and then moving down the line to cut wings.


Working in a chicken factory is hard, dirty work.

Workers stand shoulder-to-shoulder, making as many as 20,000 cuts a shift.


With a knife in her right hand, Lucero said, she cut at the chickens as fast as she could. The meat seemed to fly by.


The older women on the processing line at the House of Raeford Farms plant didn't have as much trouble, but Lucero was hampered by her adolescent muscles.


"The others kept up because they were big," she said.  "It was harder for me. I'm small."


Colleagues who looked out for Lucero said her age was no secret.


Anita Bautista worked across from Lucero. She and Lucero would sometimes switch places when the teenager fell behind.


"She's just a kid," Bautista said. "A 'chamaca' - a little girl."


After her shift, Lucero would pick bits of chicken fat from her clothes. Her skin seemed to absorb the smell of the meat. Her throbbing hands would burn for hours.


Weeks after losing her job, she says some fingers still hurt.


She stands up and grabs a bottle of a hot analgesic lotion from a shelf near the kitchen.


"My father," she said, "rubbed this cream on my hands at night."


Others underage


Current and former workers say Greenville wasn't the only place where House of Raeford hired underage workers. Dozens of minors, they say, also got jobs in West Columbia and Raeford.


Fernando Arevalo, who supervised about 80 workers in West Columbia until he was fired in October, said he knew of five or six underage workers. They looked and acted young, often talking the way teenagers do, he said. Arevalo sometimes asked their ages.


"They'd tell me straight out 'I'm 15,'" he said.


Another supervisor still employed at the plant said the company is aware of underage workers, but overlooks that because of a need to keep production lines running.


"When I've said someone looked too young, they've told me not to ask any questions," said the supervisor, who asked not to be named. "They said 'you have to assume the papers are real.'"


Lizzie Mae Harris, who worked as a supervisor at the Raeford plant for many years before leaving in 2003, estimated that about two dozen workers in her department were underage.


The boys were still not shaving, she said, and lacked the strength to do jobs designed for grown men, such as pulling skin off turkeys.


"You could look at them," she said, "and tell they were babies."


Miguel Pascal said no one asked about his age when he started working at the West Columbia plant. He was 15 when handed a deboning knife and put to work last year on the production line. His father says he often dreams that his oldest son stayed in school and later became a doctor or lawyer. But, he says, when you're a poor family from the mountains of Guatemala, that is rarely an option.


"When you're poor," his father said, "there are choices you have to make that you'd rather not."


He noted it's very common in Guatemala for a 15-year-old to be working.


Miguel, now 17, and his father said many Americans don't understand the daily struggles of many Guatemalan families. Before they came to the United States, the family not only struggled to buy food, they struggled to pay for fertilizer so he could grow simple food staples, such as corn.


But Marcille Chavis is troubled when she sees children doing this kind of work. Chavis, who worked as a production clerk at House of Raeford's Rose Hill plant for about 20 years before leaving in 2003, said she can recall seeing about 50 plant workers who she suspected were underage. When she pressed one youth who worked on the processing line about his age, he admitted he was 15, she said.


It troubled her. "A lot of the time they're not mature enough to know what to do in an emergency," she said.


In a statement, House of Raeford said supervisors should report underage employees to the human resources department because it is a violation of company policy and federal law.


"Any company manager who condones the employment of underage or illegal workers would likewise be in violation of company policy and would be subject to termination of employment," the company said. "And, in fact, we have terminated employees for just such reasons."


'La migra'


Lucero said the Oct. 7 raid at Columbia Farms was one of the scariest moments of her young life.


Federal agents came pouring into the Greenville factory just before 9a.m.


"La migra," workers screamed.


Lucero said she and others tried to escape through an emergency door. It wouldn't budge.


She said she called her sister on her cell phone, weeping, to say goodbye.


Authorities took her to an empty factory about 10 minutes from the plant. She was fingerprinted and questioned.


Lucero said she pleaded with the agents. She told them about her father and sister in Greenville.


Lucero was released to her sister's custody. She was told she'd be contacted by federal authorities.


She may still be deported.


"I don't want to go," she said. "I want to help my mother. I've only done a little. I want to do more."


Franco Ordonez: 704-358-6180;


Donations can be sent to the Baltimore Nonviolence Center, 325 E. 25th St., Baltimore, MD 21218.  Ph: 410-366-1637; Email: mobuszewski [at]


"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs


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