Gadsden-- On a recent morning, just after shift-change at the Tyson chicken processing plant in Gadsden, employees move stacks of pallets. All in a day's work, but attorney Howard Foster says there's nothing routine about how Tyson does business. Foster represents Tyson employees who say they're underpaid because the company hires illegal immigrants who will work for less.
"This has been successful in lowering the wages by something like 10-30%."
Tyson denies it knowingly employs illegal immigrants, but company attorney Mark Hopson says with a workforce of nearly 100,000 hourly employees, it's impossible to guarantee it.
"There are 50-, 60-, even 70,000 people applying for jobs in a given year by Tyson Foods. That's a lot of H-R work to do and that's a lot of people to process through a system which is itself imperfect."
Federal law requires employers to ask for a driver's license and social security number, which is cross-referenced against the government's database. But, Hopson says, all that guarantees is that fraudulent IDs are pretty good fakes. It's a defense that's worked in similar lawsuits, says Lilia Velasquez, an immigration specialist from California Western School of Law.
"The manager will come in and say - that the documents turned out to be fraudulent is not our problem! We're not forensic scientists. We're not immigration inspectors. We don't know the difference."
But Howard Foster, who's suing Tyson, doesn't buy it.
"They know that they're not good papers because the people that they're employing who are illegal are claiming to be US citizens and yet at the same time they're not speaking English, they don't have housing, they are new to the communities."
In 2003, the government accused Tyson of illegally bringing in more than 100 Mexican and Central American workers. Prosecutors presented hundreds of hours of videotape, but the jury acquitted Tyson.
This new lawsuit takes it up a notch. The plaintiffs claim the company violated RICO -- the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. Attorney Howard Foster is working a couple of theories including that Tyson illegally agreed with two large Hispanic civil rights groups (National Council of La Raza and League of United Latin American Countries) not to question the employment applications of anyone with a Hispanic surname.
Just down the road from the Tyson plant in Gadsden, diners at Pruett's Barbecue enjoy what some say are the best chicken strips in the state. The place is packed with everyone from day laborers to businesswomen in suits. Owner Donna Pruett and diner Ken Eatman.
(Pruett) "You know, I think that equal opportunity for everyone, but if you're going to live here you need to be a citizen, you need to be able to speak the language."
(Eatman) "They shouldn't be here if they're not legal, but I think more pressure should be put on the people that are working these people."
The pressure is on Tyson. Because this is a RICO suit, potential damages would be tripled and could reach 150-million dollars. That's an amount that immigration specialist Lilia Velasquez says would definitely send a message to some larger companies.
"They're looking at you, you may be audited. You may be charged with penalties. Yes - it will have a chilling effect on certain companies."
But, Velasquez says, if anything it may be the government that's really on trial in this case - for not providing employers with an effective, reliable system to screen job applicants.
-- Tanya Ott, January 26, 2007