Not only is sub-minimum wages for workers with disabilities unfair, one of the effects of such wages and using group labor of people with disabilities is the dehumanizing impact it creates on the workers by those around them. I believe this leads to a higher risk of abuse and exploitation.
In April, 2011, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed a lawsuit against Texas-based Hill Country Farms, alleging that the company subjected a group of 31 men with intellectual disabilities in Iowa to severe abuse and discrimination for more than 21 years. The men, whose job was to eviscerate turkeys, were subjected to physical abuse and inhumane working and living conditions. The physical abuse including hitting and kicking the men and forcing them to carry heavy weights as punishment. They were also verbally abused and called ‘retarded’ and ‘dumbass.’ If this rings familiar to recent human rights violations at some institutions, you are right. Institutional life is not just about the size of the program, although larger programs tend to be more regimented; it’s also very much about the relationship between group residents and those around them.
The EEOC complaint alleges that that the owners and staffers of Henry’s Turkey denied the workers lawful wages, paying them only $65 a month for full-time work; restricted their freedom of movement; and forced them to live in deplorable and sub-standard living conditions. Documents were ‘contrived’ so that employees would be paid their monthly $65 regardless of hours worked.
This is clearly a case of incredible abuse and exploitation, and is shocking in its level for today’s world. How could such a thing happen? What hasn’t been widely reported is the history behind the development of this situation and some details of the residents living conditions in Iowa. The original owner of the company, T.H. Johnson, was a rancher in Texas. He started a turkey operation there and began using graduating students of the Abilene State School, which was then an institution for students with disabilities, as low-cost laborers in the sixties. In 1968, he was even award “National Employer of the Year” by the “National Association of Retarded Children.” In the early seventies, the company made an agreement with a turkey plant in Iowa to provide labor. A bunkhouse was used as the resident for the first 15 laborers with disabilities brought to Iowa from Texas. This number fluctuated between 20 and 60, but soon settled at about 30 residents with intellectual disabilities. It wasn’t until a 2009 inspection of the residents’ bunkhouse when conditions came to light. The inspection cited the main fire alarm disabled, fire exits blocked or padlocked, holes in the ceiling, bug infestations, mold – generally deplorable conditions.
The idea of workers with disabilities as low-cost laborers stems from group employment models and the allowance of sub-minimum wage as applied to a group of people – those with disabilities. Certainly exploitation and abuse can happen anywhere, but something of this magnitude is rare. Group labor approaches and the ability to manipulate wages based on “productivity” simply invites an atmosphere where people can be taken advantage of in ways we have not seen in the US in fifty plus years. There is no reason to allow sub-minimum wages anymore; or group models of employment to solve high unemployment of a particular minority group.
Let’s end the conditions that led to a run-down bunkhouse for workers who earn a $65 monthly wage for full time work. Now.