Strategy for WI Family Farms to Fight Factory Farm Slave Labor
Publication: Business Wire
Date: Thursday, September 5 2002
Business Editors/Legal Writers
SEATTLE--(BUSINESS WIRE)--Sept. 5, 2002
Hagens Berman said a federal appeals court this week revived a racketeering lawsuit filed by Washington state farm workers claiming that apple growers and packers intentionally hired undocumented immigrants to depress wages.
Originally filed March 29, 2000 by Seattle attorney Steve Berman on behalf of the plaintiffs, the suit claims that Zirkle Fruit Company and Matson Fruit Company created an employment agency to recruit illegal immigrants primarily from Mexico, knowing that many of the workers were providing false documentation while rejecting job candidates who were known to be legal aliens or U.S. citizens.
In the ruling reversing Spokane federal trial judge Fred Van Sickle's order, the Circuit Court of Appeals said the plaintiffs should have the opportunity to show that workers' wages were driven down as the result of the defendant's use of undocumented immigrants, who, according to the suit, work for much lower pay.
"We were very pleased with the appellate court's decision," Berman said. "This suit is extremely important to thousands of farm workers all across the state and we are eager to make our case to the court."
The lawsuit was the first Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations suit (RICO) filed in which legal workers have sued agricultural employers about intentional wage depression through the use of illegal labor.
Both Zirkle and Matson have been targeted for raids and inquiry by the INS, according the lawsuit. In 1999, the INS conducted "Operation Snowbird," a crackdown on illegal immigrant hiring, and concluded through audits of I-9 forms that Matson employed hundreds of illegal immigrants. The INS determined that 74 percent of employees working in Matson's orchard and warehouse were hired using fraudulent documents.
According to the lawsuit, defendants Matson Fruit Co. and Zirkle Fruit Co. each conspired through joint venture agreements with Selective Employment Agency to hire large numbers of illegal immigrants who would work at below prevailing wage standards. The orchards used Selective Employment as a front, buffering them from liability with the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), the suit claims.
Selective Employment recruited illegal immigrants, primarily from Mexico, while knowing that many workers were providing false documentation to prove their work status, according to the lawsuit. Through regular contact, the orchard owners dictated to Selective Employment how many illegal workers they needed and instructed them to reject job candidates who were known to be legal aliens or U.S. citizens, the lawsuit claims.
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