Monday, June 25, 2007

Chop chop

There is a free weekly newspaper in Portland called Willamette Week. In their May 2nd issue, the cover story was called Chop Shop, and it was ostensibly about improper working conditions at Del Monte's North Portland plant. Del Monte workers chop up fruits and vegetables, so they can be sold in supermarkets in pre-cut/pre-sliced portions. The author of the story, Beth Slovic, went undercover for three days and worked at the plant in order to see for herself, and expose, the conditions at the plant.

The story, however, ended up exposing more than just working conditions such as near-freezing temperatures, long hours, and long wages. It also exposed a large amount of the workers as being, by their own admittance, in the US illegaly. These workers did not know, and were not informed later, that they were really speaking to a journalist.

On June 12th, federal agents raided the plant and detained 170 employees. An as-of-yet unspecified number of those employees are being deported. As with any local news story, the human-interest angle soon emerged: the fact that many of those arrested are parents of children who were born here, or are here legally, and so families are now being separated.

I would imagine that many people who hear about this situation feel torn. It is indeed awful that families are separated, and that people who were not aware that they were exposing themselves to a reporter are paying such a high price (the federales stated that they had been investigating the staffing company that supplied the plant with employees prior to the release of the article, for the record). On the other hand, they were here illegally, and discovery and deportation is the price an illegal immigrant must be prepared to pay. In addition, being in the US and working sin papeles is in and of itself a crime, but the way that many get around the lack of a work visa, green card, or Social Security number is by purchasing fake documentation. These Social Security numbers belong to other people, and constitutes identity theft. Laws are indeed being broken, and it would be nonsensical for those who get caught to not be punished.

However, I think that in this story there are larger issues looming. I don't dispute that those workers were breaking the law. My concern is over two separate issues: a journalist's responsibilities, and the corporation's liability.

The journalist encountered a situation in that plant which she may not have expected. She went in looking at working conditions, and came out knowing that many of the employees are illegal immigrants. This particular demographic is easily exploited, and the story illustrated that. But in order to expose the company, it's name and location had to be revealed. Now it is beyond suspicion that employees at that location are here illegaly - a fact they certainly would not have confessed to if they had known they would be exposed. Hiding their names is not enough, when the name of their employer is blared on the front cover of the paper. Any US citizen may choose to speak to a reporter udner the condition of anonymity, and to a certain degree journalists can fight to protect the anonymity of their sources - but like true exploited workers, who are given no recourse by their employers to fight unfairness, they were not given this option either when they spoke candidly to Slovic. Even though the staffing company that sent them to Del Monte was being investigated prior to this article, the reality is that Slovic did not know this, and released enough identifying information that should have made these workers very nervous.

Del Monte is not facing further investigation in this matter. They used a staffing company, American Staffing Resources, and by searching its offices, federal agents were able to obtain specifc information on the Del Monte employees. ASR is under investigation, however, Del Monte can claim that they rely on ASR to send them legal workers. This is, on the surface, correct, but it is unlikely that Del Monte is unaware that many of their lowest-paid employees are illegal immigrants. They seem to not have asked ASR to be more forthcoming in their screening process. The rat has to have been smelled, but no one bothered to clean it up.

In the end, the most vulnerable get caught, and the most powerful wriggle out out of yet another pickle. And we remain without a plan to effectively reform this behemoth of an issue, so that we can stop the vicious cycle. People will continute to try to sneak in the US, continue to try to work and survive, and continue to break the law doing so. We can sit proudly, arms crossed, and refuse to budge even an inch, letting this saga play itself out in an endless loop, or we can admit that compromises need to be made on both sides. Not only is the currect situation not helping, it is creating an environment of distrust and hostility towards people whose names and accents are a little too funny for our tastes.

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