Before ICE raids, claims of abuse at Mississippi plant

Poultry processor Koch Foods settled a 2018 federal lawsuit that alleged intimidation, harassment and exploitation.

    In a lawsuit against a facility where United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement carried out mass arrests this week, workers complained they were subject to various forms of abuse and harassment [Handout/Reuters]
    In a lawsuit against a facility where United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement carried out mass arrests this week, workers complained they were subject to various forms of abuse and harassment [Handout/Reuters]

    Long before United States immigration authorities arrested 680 people at agricultural processing facilities in Mississippi this week, one of the five targeted companies faced allegations of serious labour violations including intimidation, harassment  and exploitation of its largely immigrant workforce, according to a federal lawsuit.

    Last August, Illinois-based poultry supplier Koch Foods settled a multiyear lawsuit brought by the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) on behalf of more than 100 workers at the Morton, Mississippi plant over claims the company knew - or should have known - of sexual and physical assaults against its Hispanic workers.

    Mark Kaminsky, chief operating officer at Koch, said the company admitted no wrongdoing in the settlement and maintains, after fighting the matter in court for more than eight years, that all the allegations contained in the lawsuit are false.

    The workers' complaints spanned from 2004 to 2008, when the plant employed more than 500 people. They alleged that a manager would punch employees, throw chicken parts at them, and grope women from behind while they were working. Employees also alleged that supervisors coerced payments from them for everything from bathroom breaks to medical leave and promotions.

    Privately held Koch Foods, run by billionaire Joseph Grendys, called the claims of abuse and harassment "baffling" and "outrageous" in court filings. Kaminsky said a third-party review of nine months of 24-hour video surveillance at the plant found "absolutely no evidence" of the allegations' veracity. Koch said the plaintiffs made uncorroborated claims against the company as a means to obtain US visas for crime victims who collaborate with US authorities so they can stay legally in the US.

    The company settled the allegations last year by paying $3.75m and entering a three-year consent decree to prevent future violations. It agreed to implement new policies such as creating a 24-hour complaint hotline and publicly posting anti-discrimination policies, according to the EEOC.

    Some workers at the Mississippi plant who lacked legal immigration status alleged in court documents that supervisors threatened to turn them in to authorities if they spoke out about their concerns.

    Former federal officials and immigration attorneys said mass deportation operations like the ones conducted by the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on Wednesday in Mississippi can have a chilling effect on future labour complaints.

    "If workers are being threatened with being turned over to ICE, and then here comes ICE and arrests workers," people could be more reluctant to speak up, said John Sandweg, former acting ICE director under the administration of US President Barack Obama.

    He told me that if I went to complain in the office that he had contacts in immigration.

    Poultry plant worker without legal immigration status, in a 2012 legal deposition involving Koch Foods

    In the EEOC lawsuit, one Koch Foods employee without legal immigration status alleged that a manager sexually harassed his wife and made him pay to use the toilet, once waiting until he had soiled himself to permit him to leave his spot on the production line.

    "If he found out that I had talked about anything that he was doing - charging money, the way he mistreated us, the dirty words he used - he told me that if I went to complain in the office that he had contacts in immigration," the worker said in a 2012 deposition that was filed as part of the suit. "And that he knew where I lived."

    Maria Cazorla, a Cuban immigrant and lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against the company that was wrapped into the EEOC case, said in an interview on Thursday that a manager inappropriately touched her and hit her then-husband, also a co-worker, in the ribs while he was working.

    According to Cazorla's interview and court documents, her husband at the time was targeted by management and fired over his immigration status after she filed her lawsuit against the company in 2010. Cazorla, now a US citizen, left the company and Mississippi and now renovates houses in Florida.

    She said immigrants are often fearful of reporting abuse. "People are afraid to come forward because they think, 'What will happen if I say something? I'll be separated from my family, I'll lose my job,'" Cazorla said. "They prefer to say nothing and suffer."

    The EEOC enforces federal anti-discrimination laws and can investigate employee complaints. The agency tries to settle the claims but, if unsuccessful, it can file a lawsuit against employers for workplace discrimination.

    Marsha Rucker, the EEOC regional attorney who is based in Birmingham, Alabama and oversaw the lawsuit, said she did not believe the ICE action this week was connected to the EEOC's civil complaint.

    Scenes of mass arrests

    The dramatic operation on Wednesday was the biggest workplace immigration sweep since December 2006, when ICE targeted meatpacking plants in six states and arrested nearly 1,300 people.

    Some children of workers were left traumatized by their parents' detention on what was for many the first day of school, according to local media reports.

    "Government, please," an 11-year-old girl said on a CBS News segment, weeping in front of a community centre where she and other children were sent to spend the night. "My dad didn't do nothing. He's not a criminal."

    US President Donald Trump has made cracking down on immigration a centrepiece of his administration, and he said on Friday that actions like the one this week served "as a very good deterrent" to those in the country illegally. "When people see what they saw," he said, "they know that they're not staying here." 

    ICE raids in Mississippi August 2019
    United States immigration authorities arrested at least 680 people in the US state of Mississippi this week in what the government referred to as an "immigration enforcement operation" [Handout/Reuters]

    ICE officials told reporters on a call on Thursday that they had released 303 people for humanitarian reasons - if they were pregnant or a primary caretaker of children, for example. Among those released pending a hearing before an immigration judge were 18 "juveniles" who had been working in the plants, including one 14-year-old, ICE said.

    In a statement on its website dated Thursday, Koch Foods said that it was cooperating with the government's ongoing investigation following the ICE arrests. Koch said the Morton, Mississippi, plant employs more than 1,000 people and that the company is "diligent about its compliance with state and federal employment eligibility laws".

    The company has been the target of ICE worksite enforcement in the past.

    In August 2007, immigration agents arrested more than 160 employees of a Koch Foods chicken plant in Fairfield, Ohio, and the company was fined around a half a million dollars. At the time, ICE said Koch Foods was being investigated for federal crimes including encouraging, inducing or harbouring immigrants who were in the US illegally.

    Koch Foods, which according to its website is not affiliated with Koch Industries or the Koch brothers, started with 13 employees deboning and cutting up chicken in one room in 1985. It now counts more than 13,000 employees and bills itself as one of the biggest poultry processors in the US, with facilities in Alabama, Georgia, Ohio, Tennessee, and Illinois, as well as Mississippi.

    In a letter to the White House, the National Chicken Council - a lobbying group - said the poultry industry "uses every tool available to verify the identity and legal immigration status of all prospective employees". But it said there was no government system available to "confirm with confidence that new hires are legally authorized to work in the United States".

    SOURCE: Reuters news agency