ICE Raids Are Another Attempt to “Gag” Industrial Ag Whistleblowers
Massive corporations have turned the law into tools for suppressing scrutiny and accountability
The recent high profile weaponization of immigration laws against poultry workers is part of a pattern of legislators and officials conspiring with agribusiness to manipulate rural communities and workers. Notably, the recent misuse of immigration laws mirrors the development of “ag gag,” with both providing employers tools to punish whistleblowers.
Today, we and our allies took the next step in a nearly four-year long effort to end North Carolina’s version of ag gag. This “Anti-Sunshine Law” is designed to punish anyone who investigates the practices of any employer or property owner in order to illuminate illegal or dangerous behavior. The courts have repeatedly struck down such laws when they target those who collect data on public or private land to monitor pollution or undercover investigations of factory farms and slaughterhouses to reveal animal cruelty, unsafe food practices, and other violations. So at the prompting of industrial ag lobbyists, North Carolina tried a different tack: its law is so broad it can punish all whistleblowing, whether it be of a factory farm worker reporting contamination, or a daycare employee who reports child abuse to the police.
This year, we’ve also seen these attempts by industrial agriculture to silence people who speak out against its practices extend to working with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to retaliate against immigrant workers. In August 2019, ICE agents raided seven poultry processing plants in rural Mississippi and arrested nearly 700 immigrant workers. According to U.S. Attorney Mike Hurst, this raid was the largest single-state worksite enforcement action in history. While the decision to attack so many workers without bringing any immediate charges against the employers is, in and of itself, notable, the Mississippi ICE raids are particularly concerning as they followed one of the target companies settling a sexual harassment suit with the employees at raided facility.
In fact, in recent years, several high-profile workplace enforcement actions have targeted immigrant workers in industrial agricultural facilities after workers filed occupational safety and health complaints. In April 2018, ICE agents arrested 104 workers at a slaughterhouse in Tennessee. In June 2018, ICE arrested 146 workers at a meat packing facility in Ohio.
Following this summer’s raid, the Washington Post documented that poultry companies sought out immigrant workers for their plants precisely because immigration laws can be used to silence their complaints. It also chronicled past offenses by the poultry companies that were raided: beyond the sexual harassment allegations, Peco Foods, another raided company, was forced to pay a nearly $10,000 fine for worker safety violations and has been investigated five times since.
Ag-Gag laws are the flip side of the coin. While immigration statutes appear to have been employed for retribution, ag-gag threatens employees before they even speak out. In fact, we represent Food Chain Workers Alliance against Peco Foods in a fight to stop Arkansas’ ag-gag law, which is enforced by private corporations. Should we strike down that law, it will protect the right of workers to expose the company’s oppressive working conditions. Under the current ag-gag law in Arkansas, if employees attempt to unionize or merely bring to light the fact that they are forced to stand on slaughter lines without bathroom breaks, they can be sued into bankruptcy.
Unfortunately, these are just a few of the ways that the food industry relies on exploitative practices for its day-to-day operation. Tyler Whitley at Rural Advancement Foundation International details more of the ways that the poultry industry systematically creates a culture of fearful compliance among workers, hurts farmers who contract with them, and manipulates the market to defraud consumers. The Union of Concerned Scientists also took time this September to catalog the invisible costs of cheap chicken.
As we work to dismantle the structures that allow the food industry to hurt workers, farmers, consumers, and the environment, one thing is clear: the right to free speech is too high a cost. We will not let corporations get away with using the law to exploit, terrorize, or silence communities.