Major investigation launched into care and treatment of mentally retarded men
February 8, 2009 9:22 AM   Subscribe

Henry's Turkey Service is a Texas-based company that for 34 years has employed dozens of mentally disabled men to work in an Iowa turkey processing plant. The state fire marshall shut down the mens residence over the weekend due to "deplorable" conditions. Now the investigation continues into civil rights and other violations.

Henry's acts as employer, landlord and caregiver. As employer, they are allowed to pay them a "handicap wage" that is much lower than non-handicapped wages. They also collect monies for room and board and other caregiving related expenses. At first glance, my reaction was that these men were afforded the chance to be productive. Upon further reading and browsing the comments of locals, I'm amazed this has gone on so long.
posted by justlisa (24 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Thanks for the links. Wish there was more information. I wonder how many places like this are around. Seems like there might be quite a few.
posted by theefixedstars at 9:29 AM on February 8, 2009

God Almighty.

Also, this broke me:

Dru said her job has been rewarding, but when the men died — as one did recently at age 74 — it also was heartbreaking.

74, mentally disabled, and having to gut turkeys for subminimum wage? WTF?!
posted by Skeptic at 9:34 AM on February 8, 2009

A civilization is judged by how it treats its most vulnerable members. We get a D. At best.
posted by jamstigator at 9:37 AM on February 8, 2009 [7 favorites]

Lower wages for workers with disabilities are a goddamn travesty - if the perceived reduction in productivity is such a huge issue (And I've worked with several people with disabilities who were definitely assets), give tax incentives to the employers rather than fuck over human beings who are just trying to make a living and contribute to their community.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 9:46 AM on February 8, 2009 [6 favorites]

if the perceived reduction in productivity is such a huge issue

I don't disagree with you re. the principle or the tax incentives, but the chances are that the reduction in productivity is more than just a perception. Given that, surely this is an issue for governments, rather than any particular employer?

And what the hell have those mental health advocates and government officials been doing for the last thirty-odd years? Surely this stuff can't be any secret to people working in mental health care locally?
posted by PeterMcDermott at 10:16 AM on February 8, 2009

Sounds like serfdom.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:49 AM on February 8, 2009 [3 favorites]

Sounds like a business model.
posted by Thorzdad at 11:01 AM on February 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

Sounds like a book I read.
posted by paisley henosis at 11:10 AM on February 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

And what the hell have those mental health advocates and government officials been doing for the last thirty-odd years?

Getting the coveted full-minimum wage jobs at turkey processing plants.

Put Reagan and Homeless into Google. I'm shocked at how poor the campaign to polish his memory to a mirror finish has done with the web. (Well, until I think about how the two parties utilized the web in the last election, then it all makes perfect sense.) Suffice it to say the one site that comes over in support of Ron is also hawking, "a survival seed bank" that lets you plant a one acre crisis garden.

By Tuesday Rush Limbauh, et al, will be telling their listeners that this is an example of government regulation making dozens of mentally handicapped men homeless and jobless with one swish of their bureaucratic pens. Blah blah blah deregulation blah blah police state blah blah etc.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 11:12 AM on February 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

You can jump all over cases like this as a bad example of ____. It's a shame that assertedly exploitative groups like this get to hog all the press, because I (perhaps in agreement with the OP?) don't see anything wrong with a set-up like this in principle. Giving these men a sense of purpose and a way of supporting themselves (rather than just sitting them in front of a TV as at some crappy managed care institutions) is a laudable goal. But when the weak are exploited by the strong, or worse yet, those simply in a position to do so because of an assumed trust . . . yuck. I hope they get their act together (and those guilty of crimes are punished).
posted by resurrexit at 11:16 AM on February 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

Outsourcing works (read: these guys will never see a pension from the factory where they worked for 20+ years).
"West Liberty Foods and Henry's Turkey Service are parties to an agreement pursuant to which Henry's provides certain services as an independent contractor at our West Liberty, Iowa, plant. The Henry's workers are employees of Henry's Turkey Service, not of West Liberty Foods. As such, Henry's Turkey Service, not West Liberty Foods, compensates the employees.
posted by acro at 11:59 AM on February 8, 2009

sounds like today's version of the company store. this is what unions *should* be doing. instead of whatever it is they're doing.

i don't have any heartburn with paying people who probably wouldn't otherwise be employed. i have a big heartburn with exploitation of any sort. this is a stellar example.

give tax incentives to the employers rather than fuck over human beings ...

i'd be surprised if they don't received tax breaks for employing these folks. seriously. i'll bet if someone took a look at henry's tax records, they'd see all kinds of breaks.

and i wonder how much the compassionate dru has in her bank account?
posted by msconduct at 1:25 PM on February 8, 2009

[A few comments removed. Let's skip the bushlol+mentallydisabledlol derail, please.]
posted by cortex (staff) at 3:22 PM on February 8, 2009

don't see anything wrong with a set-up like this in principle.

The principle puts the welfare of the disadvantaged at the mercy of people who have no interest in preserving it, and in fact, have strong economic incentives to compromise on it. Since when has that worked?

I'm not saying that this couldn't be mitigated by a society and a government that cares enough, or that I have a better alternative, but the principle seems flawed from the start. And since it happened in the first place, obviously, we don't care enough. Maybe that can change.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 5:58 PM on February 8, 2009

There's a little fact hidden in this story that's not getting much mention: The CITY owns the house where the folks were being kept and the CITY rented it to Henry's Turkey Service. Whoever is looking into this and possible criminal charges ought to go hard after city hall and their "good ol' boys." They obviously knew the place was being used as a dormitory, but were quite content to turn their heads for decades because they valued the $600 monthly rent the city was receiving more than the welfare of their citizens.

As an Iowan, this story disgusts me. There is fundamentally no difference between what is happening in Washington D.C., Wall Street, and tiny little Atalissa: it's all driven by greed; the only difference is the amount of money involved. The effect on people's lives is the same.

This story is also an example what is so wrong about so many aspects of the U.S.A (and perhaps the global) food supply system. Take a look at the reporting on this issue back in the mid-1990's in the meatpacking and poultry industries, then look and see where we are today. A good place to start is with A.V. Kreb's "Corporate Reapers," although it's a little dated in terms of who the players are today, the system is still the same. Nothing's changed. Every single aspect of the industrial food supply system that this country relies upon is predicated upon having an ultra-cheap, in-exhaustible labor supply. Whether it's "protein" (i.e., meat) production in the midwest, and south, or vegetable and dairy out west, or in the food processing factories all over, if you ate today, chances are pretty darn good that you ate something produced somewhere by someone earning a less-than-subsistence income for him/her-self and their family.

You'll see a lot of grandstanding by the powers-that-be on this during the coming weeks. The Iowa politicos alone, Sen. Harkin (D), Sen. Grassley (R), Vilsack (D; Sec. of Ag) and Gov. Culver (D) will be out in full force and vocalizing tales of outrage. But nothing in the system will change because the powers-that-be got to where they are because of the system. It's the Golden Rule: He who has the gold, makes the rules.

Follow the money, folks.
posted by webhund at 5:58 PM on February 8, 2009 [2 favorites]

In its defense, Atalissa is small in the kind of way that most people wouldn't even recognize it as a town. Once you elect a city council, there probably aren't that many people left over. The job of mayor most likely goes to the person who hasn't held the pain in the butt office yet in town and can't get out of it. Plus, the house is out in the country and they worked in another town. It can be very isolating. There is a certain population in rural Iowa that live in these kinds of conditions, some by choice. There was a man living down the road from me who slept in his truck as it was better than his house. I recognize this house as it is only about five miles from my own and it doesn't stand out as out-of-the-ordinary run down.

That said, in small-town Iowa, you would think that people would notice that this was going down. I wonder if it never got reported by their co-workers because they were afraid of deportation. webhund is right, meatpacking is a dirty business.
posted by Foam Pants at 6:41 PM on February 8, 2009

Situations like this are much more common than most people realize. Years ago, I worked on a project that was an expansion of a cut flower processing facility. I got a brief tour of the place, saw nothing out of the ordinary, just Mexican guys working away at long tables full of flowers. The complex was surrounded by 6 foot chain link with barbed wire on top, but in Southern California, that's not all that unusual for high value ag facilities that are often near urban areas. A week after we made the site visit, the owner was indicted for holding the workers in slave conditions similar to this story. We were shocked, but not surprised. That business model is not unheard of in the ag business, and if you read the news, this sort of stuff comes to light a few times every year in various places around the U.S.
posted by Xoebe at 7:29 PM on February 8, 2009

So this business is not regulated in the way that it treats these workers? Isn't there some agency responsible for looking in on these poor guys? What a despicable way to operate.
posted by orme at 8:05 PM on February 8, 2009

Wow, can journalists still use the words "mentally retarded"? (first link)
posted by Sijeka at 2:09 AM on February 9, 2009

I most sincerely doubt that mentally disabled workers are 'less productive' than allegedly 'normal' workers. I've worked with mentally disabled people, and from what I've seen, they tend to be happy and extremely productive. While they can be annoying at times, I found they were more likely to be a light of pleasantness, by means of their addictive positive attitudes (when treated decently, obviously). They'll do the dirtiest of jobs without complaint, and expect little more than a smile in return. Way too easy to exploit, for certain.
posted by Goofyy at 2:26 AM on February 9, 2009

Wow, can journalists still use the words "mentally retarded"?

If they are using it to refer to people with the condition called mental retardation then there is no reason for concern. It's not like they said that the plants conditions were "like totally retarded." They were talking about men with a specific disorder. These men aren't simply, broadly "mentally disabled" or "developmentally disabled" they are specifically "mentally retarded."

A civilization is judged by how it treats its most vulnerable members. We get a D. At best.

At best, and that's just because we at least have laws on the books that are supposed to make shit like this illegal. I can tell you that this barely scratches the surface of the human exploitation going on every day in the US.
posted by Pollomacho at 5:42 AM on February 9, 2009

It's a sweatshop. If consumers want stuff cheaper and companies still want to make a [similar] profit, productivity improvements have to be found somewhere and cutting ethics is an easy choice to make. The average consumer typically doesn't want to know much about the supply chains that deliver cheap stuff to retailers because it forces them to acknowledge there is a hidden cost to the things they take for granted and enjoy that they do not want to pay.

As an infrequent vistor and sometime resident of the US it is noticeable about how far removed the average consumer is from the food supply chain and how access to plentiful, cheap meat (and dairy as well) sometimes seems like a constitutional right. The true cost of cheap stuff has been covered before by, amongst others, Eric Schlosser and Barbara Ehrenreich.

At the risk of painting the big meat companies as pantomine villains, they emphatically do not want consumers to think of meat products has having a history before they ended up looking all fried and tasty on the plate. It opens up a whole bunch of awkward questions. It's why they fought labelling regulation vehemently, for example.

And then, on the other hand, you have Peta and its equally absurd "Sea Kitten" campaign in the UK.
posted by MuffinMan at 7:38 AM on February 9, 2009

As an infrequent vistor and sometime resident of the US it is noticeable about how far removed the average consumer is from the food supply chain and how access to plentiful, cheap meat (and dairy as well) sometimes seems like a constitutional right.

Sadly it's not just our food. We also treat all consumables this way. Clothing, housing, recreational drugs, entertainment, you name it. It's so pervasive that the disposable culture has begun to seep into our human relationships. Sex particularly has become a disposable commodity for many and exploitation of vulnerable populations for sex work is rampant.
posted by Pollomacho at 8:35 AM on February 9, 2009

More on the men in the paper today. Also another article addresses the fact that there may be "hundreds" more unlicensed facilities such as this across Iowa.
posted by justlisa at 9:09 AM on February 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

« Older alternative currencies   |   Where We Do What We Do Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments