Former Workers File Suit Over Illegal Hiring

In Texas, a group of former employees is accusing the Swift meatpacking company of conspiring to hire illegal workers in order to depress wages. They filed suit after the immigration agency raided Swift plants in six states last month, arresting more than a thousand illegal immigrants.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

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And I'm Robert Siegel.

In Texas, a group of former employees is accusing the Swift meatpacking company of conspiring to hire illegal workers, and in doing so, depress wages. The former employees filed suit after immigration raids at Swift plants in six states last month. Those raids resulted in the arrest of more than thousand illegal immigrants.

NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.

JENNIFER LUDDEN: Amanda Selsito(ph) has done it all at the Swift meatpacking plant in Cactus, Texas. Starting in 1988, she's cut off cows' ears, pushed cattle up a ramp, been a janitor. At one point, because she speaks Spanish, she was called in to help new hires fill up forms for a company ID. They were immigrants from Guatemala. But Selsito noticed, that oddly, some had names like Smith.

Ms. AMANDA SELSITO (Former Employee, Swift meatpacking plant): I told one of the HR managers - he was walking by - I said hey, some of these people don't even speak English or talk English or, you know, can't even write or read, I said, and they run by this last name.

LUDDEN: She says the manager told her to just keep filling out the forms.

Ms. SELSITO: I mean, I felt like a fool when he told me that, you know, cause I'm just trying to get a point out to him. You know, you got illegals working here, duh.

LUDDEN: In 2002, Swift fired Selsito. She and some 20 others sued for wrongful termination, claiming they were let go because they filed for workers compensation after injuries. After last month's immigration raids, Selsito and 17 others filed the new suit, accusing Swift of conspiring to suppress wages. Angel Reyes is one of the attorneys.

Attorney ANGEL REYES (Lawyer for plaintiffs versus Swift): And we think the evidence is going to show that that was a pattern in practice at Swift was engaged in, and that is when the U.S. citizens and legal resident aliens, you know, when we can get rid of them let's can them. And when we got to replace them let's replace them with people willing to work for a third-less wages.

LUDDEN: In a written statement, Swift calls the lawsuit completely without merit. A company official would not give a recorded interview, but noted that Swift has long checked workers documents against the government database. He also said alleging a conspiracy to depress wages is absurd, since the Swift plant in Texas is a union shop. Casey Williams is the local rep for United Food and Commercial Workers Union. Remarkably, he defends Swift's compensation for its employees.

Mr. CASEY WILLIAMS (Representative, United Food and Commercial Workers Union): They can have paid holidays, paid vacation - they can get up to five weeks. They have a comprehensive medical - health care program.

LUDDEN: As for salaries, Williams is proud that over the past 13 years, he's been able to nudge them up. Last month's starting pay rose to $12/hour.

Mr. WILLIAMS: As far as beef, the Swift plant in Dumas is one of the highest paid beef plants in the country.

LUDDEN: That may be. But labor experts say the long view tells a different story. Donald Stull teaches anthropology at the University of Kansas and wrote the book, “Slaughterhouse Blues.”

Mr. DONALD STULL (Anthropologist, University of Kansas; author, “Slaughterhouse Blues”): In 1960, meatpacking wages were 15 percent above the average wage from manufacturing workers in the United States. And by 1990, those wages had fallen to 20 percent below the average manufacturing wage. And they have continued to fall since then.

LUDDEN: Lance Campa of Cornell University says the turning point came in the early 1980s. That's when Iowa Beef Packers or IBP revolutionized the industry.

Mr. LANCE CAMPA (Cornell University): They broke down all the skills that had been involved in meat packing work, and made it a very wrote operation with the workers standing on the disassembly line, as it's called, and doing on single cutting motion - time after time, thousands of times a day, actually, on each shift. And it was that that was the shock element that started driving down wages.

LUDDEN: Skilled positions disappeared, replaced by unskilled jobs now offered at half the pay. This opened the way for an influx of immigrants to the industry. While Campa sees a clear link between low wages and a steady supply of illegal workers he's not sure it can be proven as a conspiracy.

Mr. CAMPA: Because it's hard to sort out, you know, to what extent did they do it in order to drive down wages versus to what extent did they do it because they needed new bodies coming into the plants because of the conditions being so difficult.

LUDDEN: Back in the Texas Pan Handle, Amanda Selsito admits to mixed feelings. It turns out both her husband and father first came to the U.S. illegally, to work. But as a native-born Mexican-American, she resents the wave of illegal Guatemalans who found jobs at the Swift plant. Not long after Swift fired her, Selsito says she was reduced to scouring the house for nickels and dimes to buy food. She has a searing memory of going to the store one day and standing in line to pay behind a Guatemalan.

Ms. SELSITO: And this guy in front of me, I'm looking through his wallet trying to look for a $20 bill I guess. He had so many hundreds in there, in his wallet. And I'm going like, here I am struggling. You know, trying to get a damn three dollar piece of meat to feed my family, and this son of a bitch has, you know, money that should be mine. Money that I should be feeding my family with.

LUDDEN: Selsito's lawyers say there are thousands more legal workers like her. They're seeking class-action status for their suit.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.

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