Companies producing more than 90% of America’s chicken have conspired to depress wages for a largely immigrant work force in some of the nation’s most dangerous jobs, according to a lawsuit.
The case filed last week is mostly based on interviews with former employees, and claims the conspiracy among 18 companies, their subsidiaries and affiliates and two consulting firms continues until today. It was filed on behalf of three former workers, but seeks class-action status for hundreds of thousands, many with limited language skills and few other prospects for employment.
Since 2009, leaders of the firms’ human resources and compensation departments have held annual secret meetings at a Destin, Florida, hotel to discuss pay and benefits for line and maintenance workers at about 200 plants, according to the complaint in Baltimore federal court. Using consulting agencies as intermediaries, the suit says, they share detailed wage information. Plant managers also cooperate, for example calling each other when one announces an expansion to find out what new positions will pay, it says.
Chicken producers are getting used to being on the receiving end of litigation. Three years ago, a class-action lawsuit filed by Maplevale Farm, a food distributor, accused them of price fixing enabled by the Indiana-based data company Agri Stats Inc. Lawsuits from consumers, distributors, grocery chains and food companies followed, and this summer the Justice Department intervened. It asked the court to halt proceedings while it pursued its own criminal investigation.
But hey, there’s always the backup plan of having your workers deported!
On Aug. 7, federal agents raided seven Mississippi plants, arresting 680 undocumented workers. Under President Donald Trump, who ran on limiting legal immigration and forcibly removing undocumented residents, work-site investigations by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement surged to 6,848 in fiscal 2018 from 1,691 the year before. Trump praised the Mississippi raids as a “good deterrent.”
Of course, the chicken plant owners receive no penalty for hiring undocumented workers. ICE can just get rid of pesky workers when they cause problems like demanding a dignified life, which has long been a strategy of the meat industry.