America’s Chicken Industry Accused of Conspiring to Keep Immigrant Wages Down
Officials meet at Florida hotel to share data, case claims
Filing follows price-fixing complaint that spurred U.S. probe
By Deena Shanker and Polly Mosendz, Bloomberg
September 3, 2019
Companies producing more than 90% of America’s chicken have conspired to depress wages for a largely immigrant work force in some of the nation’s most dangerous jobs, according to a lawsuit.
The case filed last week is mostly based on interviews with former employees, and claims the conspiracy among 18 companies, their subsidiaries and affiliates and two consulting firms continues until today. It was filed on behalf of three former workers, but seeks class-action status for hundreds of thousands, many with limited language skills and few other prospects for employment.
Since 2009, leaders of the firms’ human resources and compensation departments have held annual secret meetings at a Destin, Florida, hotel to discuss pay and benefits for line and maintenance workers at about 200 plants, according to the complaint in Baltimore federal court. Using consulting agencies as intermediaries, the suit says, they share detailed wage information. Plant managers also cooperate, for example calling each other when one announces an expansion to find out what new positions will pay, it says.
Chicken producers are getting used to being on the receiving end of litigation. Three years ago, a class-action lawsuit filed by Maplevale Farm, a food distributor, accused them of price fixing enabled by the Indiana-based data company Agri Stats Inc. Lawsuits from consumers, distributors, grocery chains and food companies followed, and this summer the Justice Department intervened. It asked the court to halt proceedings while it pursued its own criminal investigation.
The new litigation targets 18 processors including Tyson Foods Inc., Sanderson Farms Inc., Mar-Jac Poultry Inc., Wayne Farms Inc., Perdue Farms Inc. and Pilgrim’s Pride Corp., their subsidiaries and affiliates, as well as Agri Stats and Pennsylvania consultant Webber, Meng, Sahl and Co. Inc.
“We do not believe this suit has any merit,” Andrea Staub, a Perdue spokeswoman, said in an email. “Our compensation philosophy is to pay fair and in some cases above average wages.”
Tyson, Mar-Jac, Wayne and Sanderson declined to comment. The other companies and consultants didn’t reply to requests for comment.
The suit, which seeks unspecified damages, is about more than money, said the lead plaintiff attorney.
“These workers are some of the most vulnerable workers in the United States,” George F. Farah, a partner at Handley Farah & Anderson PLLC, a Washington-based firm that pursues cases against corporations on social-justice grounds. “I can’t think of a more important case I’ve pursued in my entire career.”
Chicken is the country’s most popular and cheapest protein: Americans will eat an estimated 94.3 pounds each in 2019, according to the National Chicken Council, and they will pay only $1.90 a pound. Preparing all that meat is gruesome and hazardous. Poultry workers suffered occupational illnesses at a rate five times higher than other U.S. workers in 2013, according to a 2015 Oxfam report, and 72% reported significant work-related illness or injuries.
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