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Sioux City pork plant says it's investigating claims of worker mistreatment, labor violations

The Seaboard Triumph Foods pork processing plant opened in 2017. (Tim Hynds/Sioux City Journal)
The Seaboard Triumph Foods pork processing plant opened in 2017. (Tim Hynds/Sioux City Journal)
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SIOUX CITY — Seaboard Triumph Foods said Thursday it’s investigating allegations that company representatives abused and mistreated Micronesia citizens recruited to work at the Sioux City pork plant.

“We will continue to investigate and respond until we’ve demonstrated to the Micronesian Embassy how our Sioux City plant is compliant with all labor laws and regulations and fully addresses their formal inquiry,” the company said in a statement Thursday.

The government of the Federated States of Micronesia, or FSM, lodged a formal request Friday for the U.S. government to investigate Seaboard Triumph, after dozens of the sovereign island nation’s citizens claimed that employers at Seaboard Triumph “harassed” them physically and emotionally, including verbal abuse.

Seaboard Triumph acknowledged it works with a recruitment firm in FSM, which consists of 607 small islands in the Western Pacific, roughly 2,500 miles southwest of Hawaii.

The company said it launched an investigation immediately after the allegations became known, and has been working with its Micronesian staff, the Sioux City Human Rights Commission and the United Food and Commercial Workers to address any potential abuses or labor violations.

UFCW Local 222 represents hourly workers at the plant, which employs nearly 2,000.

“We can already say many of the allegations being presented are untrue,” Seaboard Triumph said in the statement.

After arriving in the United States, some Micronesia citizens allege that the work they were performing for Seaboard Triumph was inconsistent with the descriptions they were provided by recruiters and with the terms of the employment contracts they signed.

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The workers also claim Seaboard Triumph issued them false Security Security numbers, seized their passports and refused to provide them with copies of their employment contracts.

In the statement, Seaboard Triumph said Micronesian citizens are assigned a temporary Tax Identification Number until they receive their permanent Social Security card from the Social Security Administration, which can take up to 90 days.

The tax ID allows the workers to be paid in the meantime, the company said.

The company also denied holding any of the employees’ passports.

“We have also reviewed the employment paperwork of the Micronesian employees under this program with the union to ensure that what was offered by STF is currently reflected in their job assignment, compensation package and that they have access to copies of their employment paperwork,” the company said in the statement.

The formal request for an investigation, which was posted to the Embassy of the Federated States of Micronesia’s website, claims that FSM citizens have reported “serious and sustained abuse,” including potential human trafficking, labor abuse and “what appear to be other violations of U.S. law” at the pork plant.

In the statement, Seaboard Triumph said harassment in the workplace is “absolutely prohibited.”

... We will take all steps necessary to prevent and eliminate harassment. All complaints will be investigated promptly and, if the investigation confirms conduct contrary to this policy has occurred, Seaboard Triumph Foods will take immediate, appropriate, corrective action,” the company said in the statement.

To help the Micronesian workers successfully integrate into the community, the company said it offers housing, meals and transportation immediately upon their arrival in the United States. The assistance includes a $100 gift card for use for incidental expenses.

Under the UFCW contract, the company noted plant employees are eligible for a starting hourly wage of $15.95, as well as benefits that include paid vacation and health, vision and dental insurance.

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State officials said this week they have suspended the awarding of the plant’s financial incentives while they look into the allegations.

The Iowa Economic Development Authority Board awarded Seaboard Triumph $16.5 million in state tax credits and sales and use tax refunds for the $301 million plant, which opened in the fall of 2017 in the city’s Bridgeport West Business Park.

“We’re going to hold and not allocate any of the incentives until the investigation is finalized and we understand, first of all, if that took place, and how they are reacting to the allegations that they’ve been accused of,” Gov. Kim Reynolds said Wednesday at her weekly news conference.

“So we’re waiting to see what they’re doing, but in the interim we’ve put a hold on any of the state incentive payments that have been awarded to the company.”

The city of Sioux City also provided financial incentives, including a $7.7 million property tax waiver for the first five years, based on a scale that gradually will reduce the exemption.

Mayor Bob Scott said city officials have contacted Seaboard Triumph about the allegations and believe the company is “trying to do everything they can to treat the employees fairly.”

The 600,000-square-foot plant, which claims to be the second-largest fresh pork plant in the world, has the capacity to slaughter more than 20,000 hogs per day.

Gazette Des Moines Bureau reporter Rod Boshart contributed to this article.

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