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January 2003, Volume 9, Number 1

Unauthorized Migrants, RICO, Tyson

Tyson Foods Inc., the largest US poultry processor, was indicted December 19, 2001, charged with 36 counts of recruiting unauthorized workers from Mexico and transporting them to 15 of Tyson's 57 poultry processing plants in the Midwest and South. According to the indictment, Tyson managers arranged with smugglers to pick up workers just inside the US border, and paid the recruiters-smugglers $100 to $200 for each worker who agreed to board buses that Tyson arranged from the border to its plants.

Tyson has 120,000 employees and annual sales of $25 billion. Employment in the US meat and poultry processing industry is 400,000, so Tyson accounts for almost 30 percent of the industry's workers. If convicted, Tyson could face fines exceeding $100 million, based on allegedly illegal profits derived from lower wages paid to the unauthorized workers and the company's willful exploitation of them. Tyson in December 2002 indicated that it would go to trial in February 2003 rather than accept a plea agreement with the government.

In the wake of the government's suit against Tyson, class-action lawsuits have been filed on behalf of US workers who argue their wages were depressed by Tyson's systematic recruitment of unauthorized migrants. Under the federal Racketeering Influence and Corrupt Organizations law, the workers could collect three times their actual damage if they can prove that Tyson conspired to depress US workers' wages. In July 2002, the RICO class-action suit was dismissed, with the federal judge ruling that the workers were required to show that "they directly suffered loss of wages because Tyson employed illegal aliens." The judge noted that wages could have been affected by other factors, such as the availability of workers and the profitability of the business.

Previous dismissals of RICO suits by federal judges have been dismissed by Courts of Appeals, allowing them to go to trial. RICO trials are pending against apple-packing companies in Washington and a janitorial firm in Connecticut.

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