Posted on July 15, 2004

Washington Orchard Workers Win Suit Against Major Grower

PRNewswire, Jul. 14

YAKIMA, Wash. — A group of legal immigrants residing in Washington state’s apple-producing Yakima Valley won a major legal victory yesterday after a U.S. District Court judge certified a class action lawsuit against executives of one of the state’s largest orchard owners charging that the executives conspired to depress farmworkers’ wages by hiring large numbers of illegal workers to set low wage standards for orchard and packing house work.

The class action lawsuit was originally filed in United States District Court in March of 2000 under the Federal Racketeer and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) and is the first of its kind in the U.S. where legal workers have sued agricultural employers about intentional wage depression through the use of illegal labor.

Now certified as a class action, the suit represents an estimated 20,000 packing house and orchard workers of Zirkle Fruit Company, based in Selah, Washington and those legal workers hired by Selective Employment Agency to work in Zirkle’s packing house operations.

Seattle attorney Steve Berman filed the lawsuit on behalf of three named plaintiffs.

“We know from our investigation that a large percentage of workers hired by Zirkle are illegal. These workers know that they are not in any position to demand a fair wage, and as a result, illegally depress the wages of legal farm workers,” Berman said. “It is an insidious cycle that exploits the illegal workers and victimizes the legal ones.”

According to the lawsuit, Zirkle Fruit Co. conspired with Selective Employment Agency to hire illegal immigrants who would work at below prevailing wage standards at Zirkle’s packing house. The company used Selective Employment as a front, buffering it from liability with the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), the suit claims.

“We believe Zirkle’s actions are horridly unfair to the immigrant workers who have taken the legal channels to work here-making sacrifices at every step of the way to create a better life for their families,” Berman added.

The suit seeks an end to the practice by Zirkle, and compensation for the class members.

The judge declined to certify similar claims against executives of Matson Fruit Company, a smaller fruit company named in the original complaint.

The U.S. General Accounting Office estimates more than 600,000 farmworkers across the country are employed illegally. About 52,000 workers work illegally in Washington in all types of jobs, according to estimates by the INS.

The court also ordered that class members be notified of the class action by mail and signs in the workplace, an action Berman believes will happen in the coming weeks. As an opt-out lawsuit, those who do not wish to be represented by the class action will receive instructions on removing themselves from the case.