A federal judge granted class-action status to a lawsuit that contends Tyson Foods Inc. (TSN), the world’s largest meat producer, depressed wages by hiring illegal immigrants at eight plants in Tennessee, Alabama, Indiana, Missouri, Texas and Virginia.
Howard W. Foster of Chicago, an attorney for Tyson employees, described the ruling as a “very big step.” It allows him to seek damages for thousands of workers at the eight plants instead of just the four original plaintiffs.
Roger Dickson of Chattanooga, an attorney for the Springdale, Ark., based company, said he hadn’t had a chance to read the judge’s order and declined further comment.
“This is a procedural ruling and not based on the merits of this case, which was actually dismissed by another judge back in 2002,” Tyson spokesman Gary Mickelson said in a statement. “We remain confident our company will ultimately prevail.”
A federal jury in March 2003 acquitted the company and three former managers of conspiring to hire illegal immigrants from Mexico and Central America for low-wage production jobs to boost profits. Two former Tyson managers who made plea deals were each sentenced to one year of probation.
The acquittal dealt a setback to the government’s strategy of enforcing immigration laws by going after big business.
The lawsuit says Tyson relied on a network of recruiters and temporary employment agencies that brought illegal workers into the U.S. and then supplied them with false identification.
Foster said Tyson employees’ pay was depressed “probably $8 to $10 an hour” by hiring illegal immigrants.
The eight Tyson plants named in the suit are at Shelbyville; Corydon, Ind.; Gadsden, Ala., Blountsville, Ala., Ashland, Ala.; Sedalia, Mo.; Center, Texas and Glen Allen, Va.