Cruelest Cuts

Throwaway workers

You may not like the fact illegal immigrants break the law to come to this country for jobs. Yet they do come, and Americans want the low-priced products and services their cheap labor provides. But we should be appalled by what's happening to thousands of immigrant workers who do dangerous, dirty work in pain factories in the Carolinas.

They are being exploited, abused, then thrown away when they are injured or when they speak up. Companies can get away with it, in part, because politicians in Washington don't have the conscience or will to fix failed immigration policies.

Here are the facts: A 22-month Observer investigation into poultry processing found that feeble rules and lax oversight have made it easy for a dangerous industry to exploit illegal workers, underreport injuries and manipulate a regulatory system that essentially lets companies police themselves.

In particular, the report found that poultry processor House of Raeford is relying heavily on Latino immigrants to do dangerous jobs for low pay. When workers complain, their complaints are ignored. When they are hurt, crippling injuries are often hidden from government scrutiny.

That treatment is by no means exclusive to meat processing. The truth is, illegal immigrants exist in the shadows. They are perfect targets for unscrupulous employers, and many freely take advantage of them. Having that kind of sub-class is in no one's best interest.

First things first. Carolinas lawmakers ought to call for a federal investigation into hiring practices, working conditions and injury reporting by poultry processors. The record is clear: No one is watching out for workers who perform risky, repetitive work on high-speed processing lines.

Job No. 2 is comprehensive immigration reform. Politicians in Washington have put rigid ideological views and emotional demagoguery above reasoned compromise. The U.S. needs sensible reform that secures borders, expands the guest worker program and provides a path to legal status for illegal workers already here.

The nation's outdated immigration policies are not adapted to a global economy. Think about it: There are jobs on this side of the southern border. On the other side? Intense poverty and hundreds and thousands of willing workers who want those jobs. Yet guest worker programs and immigration quotas severely curtail who can come here legally. It's despicable for this nation and its elected officials to ignore reforms that would give immigrant workers the basic protection decency demands.

It's easy to take a hard line on illegal workers. It's much harder to see their plight, and take practical policy steps to prevent the kinds of abuses that left Karina Zorita, 32, a former House of Raeford worker, with gnarled and damaged hands.

Remember this: They are human beings. Yet that's not how they are treated. They are treated as desechables -- disposables. That's wrong.