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Former Child Workers Describe Unsafe Environment

Agriprocessors meatpacking plant's underage workers describe an environment where they were asked to perform the tasks of adults, often with little guidance.

POSTVILLE, Iowa (AP) -- Luisa Lopez says no one asked about her age when she started working at the nation's largest kosher meatpacking plant. She was 17, and within days she was on a fast-moving poultry production line, wielding a long, sharp pair of scissors.

"They never told me how to use them," Lopez said in Spanish. "Things moved so fast and I was always worried I would cut myself."

Yesenia Cordero, whose round baby face makes her look even younger than her 16 years, also said age was never an issue at the Agriprocessors plant, which state officials allege employed dozens of underage workers in an "egregious" violation of labor laws.

"I never think about how young I am," Cordero said. "I never think I shouldn't be here. I just think I need to work."

Former underage workers at the northeast Iowa plant describe a perilous environment where teenagers were asked to perform the tasks of grown men and women, often with little guidance.

They said that although their age and lack of skills were common knowledge inside the plant, they were subjected to the same conditions as everyone else and were quickly immersed in an aggressive, fast-paced operation. Under Iowa law, no one under the age of 18 can work on a meatpacking plant floor.

Cordero said she quickly grew to loathe coming to work inside the dank, cold walls of the plant. But she had no choice.

"I was providing for my family," she said. "It was the only way."

She and Lopez were among 389 undocumented workers arrested May 12 in an immigration raid at the plant that set a record for most arrests in a single-site enforcement effort. Their cases are being processed, but they are among those illegal immigrants who have been released for reasons such as caring for relatives.

Cordero's 18-year-old boyfriend, Henry Lopez, remains in custody. She said he was 14 and not even a high school freshman when he first picked up a long, razor-sharp knife and went to work on the slaughter line.

Cordero said Henry Lopez learned on the fly how to manage the dangerous blade and make the series of cuts required on the chickens that came whipping by him.

"He was brave," she said. "He did his work. He never was told what to do, but he never hurt himself with the knife." She said he never let on if he was scared.

Agriprocessors has emphatically denied state allegations that it knowingly allowed underage workers into its plant. On Wednesday, Menachem Lubinsky, a spokesman for Agriprocessors, said the company has cooperated with state officials and "protests the issuance of a press release that has patently been motivated by a desire to ride the crest of the wave of current public opinion adverse to Agri(processors)."

Company officials have said no further comment is forthcoming.

Cordero said Henry Lopez hadn't wanted her to work at the plant, but when she became pregnant he agreed that she could work there after the baby was born.

Cordero began in February, working in the plant's quality control department. A typical work week was six days, with long hours -- sometimes more than 12 a day, with only intermittent overtime pay.

"We were always tired," she said.

Cordero cleaned up messes on the floor and made sure departments had enough ice to cool their products. She did not like the work, but she was content, she said, because she was helping to eke out a living for her burgeoning family.

She and her boyfriend were working when the plant was raided. They haven't seen each other since but have talked on the phone, she said.

Luisa Lopez said she hadn't wanted to work at the plant, but quit school to do so because her family needed the money. She said she never quite grew used to blood and gore she walked past on the floor, or to a verbally abusive boss she had complained about to no avail.

Luisa Lopez and Cordero both describe working at the plant as depressing, particularly in the summer. Cordero said she would long for outdoor work, like an agricultural job in Iowa's vast cornfields.

"When you work many hours, many days in the cold and it is warm outside it is very hard," she said. "You get so sad and tired."

In Postville, where the May immigration raid has deeply rattled residents, some said that new revelations and openness about the working conditions inside of Agriprocessors were an unexpected benefit.

"Maybe the closest thing to a good that I've seen out of this has been that it revealed how badly people were treated at Agriprocessors," said the Rev. Lloyd Paul Ouderkirk of St. Bridget's Roman Catholic Church. "... It's like out of a ghost story, but it's true."

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