Wires

Allegations of labor abuses dogged Mississippi plant years before immigration raids

Mica Rosenberg and Kristina Cooke

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Aug 9 (Reuters) - Long before U.S. immigration authorities arrested 680 people at agricultural processing facilities in Mississippi this week, one of the five targeted companies faced allegations of serious labor violations including intimidation, harassment and exploitation of its largely immigrant work force, according to a federal lawsuit.

Last August, Illinois-based poultry supplier Koch Foods settled a multi-year lawsuit brought by the U.S. 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.

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

Privately-held Koch Foods, run by billionaire Joseph Grendys, did not respond to requests for comment. In court filings, the company called the claims of abuse and harassment "baffling" and "outrageous." Koch said the plaintiffs made claims against the company as a means to obtain U.S. visas for crime victims who collaborate with law enforcement, according to the court documents.

The company settled the allegations last year by paying a $3.75 million and entering into a three-year consent decree to prevent future violations. It agreed to implement new policies such as creating a 24-hour complaint hot line 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, according to the EEOC complaint.

Former federal officials and immigration attorneys said mass deportation operations like the ones conducted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on Wednesday in Mississippi can have a chilling effect on future labor 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, a former acting ICE director during the Obama administration.

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 bathroom, once waiting until he had soiled himself to give him permission 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 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 agains the company in 2010. Cazorla, now a U.S. citizen, left the company and Mississippi and now renovates houses in Florida.

Even after the manager accused of some of the most serious violations was fired in 2008, workers continued to be subjected to threats of violence and reprisals in the workplace, the lawsuit said.

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, EEOC Regional Attorney based in Birmingham, Alabama who oversaw the lawsuit, said she did not believe the EEOC's civil complaint was connected to the ICE action this week.

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 almost 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 center where she and other children were sent to spend the night. "My dad didn't do nothing. He's not a criminal."

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, ICE said, including one 14-year-old.

Koch Foods has been the target of 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 paid about a half-million dollars in fines. At the time, ICE said Koch Foods was being investigated for federal crimes including encouraging, inducing or harboring immigrants in the United States illegally.

The company, 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 United States, with facilities in Alabama, Georgia, Ohio, Tennessee and Illinois as well as Mississippi.

In a letter to President Donald Trump, who has made cracking down on immigration a centerpiece of his administration, the National Chicken Council - a lobbying group - said the poultry industry "uses every tool available to verify the identify and legal immigration status of all prospective employees" but said there was no government system available to "confirm with confidence that new hires are legally authorized to work in the United States."

(Mica Rosenberg reported from New York and Kristina Cooke from San Francisco; Editing by Julie Marquis and Marla Dickerson)