Business

State incentives on hold while Sioux City pork plant probed

Workers from Micronesia allege they were abused at the plant

(Liz Martin/The Gazette)
(Liz Martin/The Gazette)

SIOUX CITY — The state is taking a wait-and-see approach on allegations of abuse and mistreatment made by workers from Micronesia against Seaboard Triumph Foods, but in the meantime, the Sioux City pork plant’s financial incentives are on hold.

The government of the Federated States of Micronesia lodged a formal request Friday for the U.S. government to investigate Seaboard Triumph Foods after dozens of the sovereign island nation’s citizens claimed that employers at the plant “harassed” them physically and emotionally, including verbal abuse. The federation consists of 607 small islands in the western Pacific Ocean, which are roughly 2,500 miles southwest of Hawaii.

The plant, which opened in fall 2017, is the second-largest fresh pork plant in the world and one of the newest of its kind in the United States.

Debi Durham, Iowa economic development director, said this week the state has reached out to plant management and is “reviewing the information.”

“Everything is on hold as far as any incentive draw until we understand what we’re dealing with,” she said.

The Iowa Economic Development Authority awarded the company $16.5 million in state tax credits and sales and use tax refunds. 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 will gradually reduce the exemption.

Sioux City Mayor Bob Scott said Tuesday that “there’s two sides to every story.” He said city officials have contacted the plant about the allegations and believe the company is “trying to do everything they can to treat the employees fairly.”

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“What we’ve been led to believe is they’re working hard to solve any problems there,” he said.

The formal request for an investigation, which was posted to the Embassy of the Federated States of Micronesia’s website, claims that its 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.

Company officials said in a statement provided Tuesday to the Journal that they are aware of the allegations.

“Seaboard Triumph Foods is compliant with all laws and regulations during the hiring process and remains committed to ensuring a legally compliant work environment for each member of our staff,” it said.

Erica DeLeon, director of the community initiative One Siouxland, said various organizations are trying to figure out how to help Micronesian citizens, who she said aren’t well-connected in the community.

“We’ve been talking to a few different organizations that cannot just help with the current challenges, but then, long term, get them connected to other resources, whether it’s housing, social services and other employment if they so choose,” she said. “It’s too early to really talk about what we will be able to do. We’re still trying to figure that out.”

DeLeon said she is aware of a growing Micronesian population in Storm Lake, many of whom work at Tyson Foods’ pork plant. She said their community leaders are trying to connect with the plant workers in Sioux City in effort to offer resources.

The formal request states that the federation government has received reports that representatives of the company have been traveling to Pohnpei, one of the islands’ four states, to recruit Micronesian citizens to work at its Sioux City facility.

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In October 2018, company Chief Operating Officer Mark Porter told the Journal the pork plant had surpassed 1,800 employees and started up a second shift. He said the plant would reach 2,000 employees, slaughtering more than 20,000 hogs per day.

Christine McAvoy, a former member of the Mary J. Treglia Community House Board of Directors, said she isn’t aware of an influx of Micronesian citizens receiving services from the nonprofit that seeks to identify and respond to the needs of Siouxland’s immigrant population. She said citizens of Micronesia are coming to the United States because their islands are disappearing due to sea level rise.

“Some of the islands are no longer inhabitable,” she said.

According to the Embassy of the Federated States of Micronesia’s website, under the Amended Compact of Free Association, citizens of the federation “continue to enjoy the privileges of traveling to and residing in the U.S. to seek employment or pursue education, without the need for a visa.” They are eligible to apply for and be issued a Social Security number.

After arriving in the United States, the citizens allege that the work they are performing for the plant is inconsistent with descriptions they were told by recruiters and with the terms of the employment contracts they signed. According to the request, these employees also allege the company has seized their passports and refused to provide them with copies of their employment contracts. They also claim it is issuing false Social Security numbers for employees, according to the request.

A news release from the federation’s Information Services states that its embassy has also reported the allegations against the company to the National Human Trafficking Hotline and “will continue to implore other potential options in its efforts to ensure its citizens are safe and protected while employed in the United States.”

When Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds and Scott last October visited the 942,000-square-foot pork plant, Scott presented the company with a “Growing Sioux City” Award.

“They have been nothing but good corporate citizens since they came here,” Scott said then.

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