SIOUX CITY -- The State of Iowa is taking a wait-and-see approach regarding 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 (FSM) lodged a formal request Friday for the U.S. government to investigate Seaboard Triumph Foods (STF), after dozens of the sovereign island nation's citizens claimed that employers at STF "harassed" them physically and emotionally, including verbal abuse. The FSM consists of 607 small islands in the Western Pacific, which are roughly 2,500 miles southwest of Hawaii.
The STF plant, which opened in the fall of 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 Tuesday that the state has reached out to STF 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 STF $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 STF about the allegations and believe the company is "trying to do everything they can to treat the employees fairly."
"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 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.
Officials from STF said in a statement provided to the Journal on Tuesday 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," the statement said.
Reaching out to workers
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 STF workers in Sioux City in effort to offer resources.
The formal request states that the government of the FSM has received reports that representatives of STF have been traveling to Pohnpei, one of the FSM's four states, to recruit Micronesian citizens to work at its Sioux City facility.
In October 2018, STF Chief Operating Officer Mark Porter told the Journal that 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 FSM "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 U.S. Social Security number.
After arriving in the United States, the citizens allege that the work they are performing for STF is inconsistent with the descriptions they were provided by recruiters and with the terms of the employment contracts they signed. According to the request, these employees also allege that STF has seized their passports and refused to provide them with copies of their employment contracts. They also claim STF is issuing false Social Security numbers for employees, according to the request.
A press release from FSM Information Services states that the FSM Embassy has also reported the allegations against STF 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 visited the 942,000-square-foot STF pork plant last October, Scott presented the company with a "Growing Sioux City Award."
"They have been nothing but good corporate citizens since they came here," Scott said at the time.
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City Government & Features Reporter
Butz, a Drake University graduate, has been at the Journal since 2005, covering a variety of beats, including public safety, health care and city government. She has won state and national awards, primarily for coverage of addiction and mental health.