CONCORD – The Perdue Farms poultry processing plant in Concord is named in a class action lawsuit filed against plant and human resource managers on March 22.

The lawsuit, filed in federal district court in Alabama, alleges that managers conspired to hire illegal immigrants in 16 processing plants across 10 states. The lawsuit also alleges that Perdue corporate executives directed their HR managers to use the scheme as part of their hiring practices.

Five plaintiffs, all hourly-paid legal workers for Perdue, claim their wages were depressed because Perdue hired illegal immigrants. This hiring scheme has been ongoing since March 2006 as part of Perdue’s regular hiring practices, the lawsuit alleges, and would continue unless a court intervenes.

Perdue Farms is the third-largest poultry processing company in the United States, with annual sales exceeding $4.6 billion.

The plants span much of the Southeast — in Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky, South Carolina, Alabama, Delaware, Tennessee, Georgia, Maryland and Indiana.

The lawsuit was brought against 15 Perdue managers, not the company itself, and filed under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations, or RICO Act, which is commonly used to prosecute organized crime.

Among the practices Perdue managers are accused of, the lawsuits states:

– falsely attesting on I-9 forms that illegal immigrants presented genuine work documents;
– hiring employees that previously worked in other Perude plants under different aliases;
– coaching illegal aliens to claim high numbers of dependents on tax forms to reduce tax withholding;
– tipping off illegal employees to rumors of government raids in plants so they are not at the plant during the inspection and not arrested.
– telling legal workers perceived to be underworking to work harder or they would be replaced by new hires “from the tomato fields,” a euphemism for illegal workers.

These practices saved Perdue millions of dollars in wages because, as the lawsuit states, “illegal immigrants will work for extremely low wages, will typically not complain about workplace conditions and injuries, and because of their vulnerable situation, will accede to employer demands to work harder and longer hours than American citizens.”

The lead attorney, Howard Foster, is an expert in civil RICO cases.

Foster said he believes this type of hiring practice is not uncommon in the poultry industry.

“They are able to get away with it because the federal government lets them get away with it,” Foster said, “They don’t enforce immigration laws very well.”

Luis Luna, Perdue vice president for corporate communications, said the lawsuit has no merit and the company would defend itself “vigorously.”

“I can tell you the company, Perdue, does not condone any illegal hiring practices,” Luna said. “We even have auditors that come in and independently verify our hiring systems.”

The Concord plant expanded in 2004, with Perdue investing $14.2 million in the expansion. Cabarrus County gave Perdue a three-year personal property and a five-year real property tax incentive grant at 75 percent of new taxes paid.

The Concord plant employs about 460 people.