Author: Francis X. Gilpin
Published in: The Daily Sentinel / April 03, 2010

A now-closed local chicken plant was among 16 Perdue Farms Inc. sites where illegal immigrants were routinely hired to depress wages for Americans, according to a recent lawsuit.

Three law firms claim in the racketeering complaint, which they hope to be declared a class-action suit, that Perdue Farms managers engaged in a scheme to drive down wages for legal plant workers in the Carolinas, Alabama, Delaware, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Tennessee and Virginia.

“The scheme saves Perdue millions of dollars in labor costs because 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 than American citizens,” the suit states.

Privately held Perdue Farms did not return calls Friday to the family-owned company’s Maryland headquarters.

The federal suit, filed last month in Alabama, doesn’t name Perdue Farms as a defendant. Instead, various personnel managers are alleged to “have conspired with others in Perdue’s headquarters in Salisbury, Maryland” to carry out the scheme.

The suit claims the hiring practices, which included knowingly employing workers with false identities, have been in place at the plants since March of 2006.

The Fayetteville plant named in the suit closed in September 2006. The chicken processor sold the 13,552-square-foot building on Tom Starling Road for $450,000 last year to a Kernersville company, according to Cumberland County records. The asking price for the 13-acre property had been $715,000, according a Fayetteville-Cumberland County Chamber of Commerce listing.

The suit claims Perdue Farms was able to hire legal workers “for depressed wage rates” at the Fayetteville plant because of “its size and power within the local labor market.”

The employment of undocumented workers also occurred in North Carolina at Perdue Farms plants in Concord, Lewiston and Rockingham, according to the suit.

The company’s hiring practices in North Carolina have been called into question before.

The U.S. Labor Department sued Perdue Farms in 1999 for not compensating crews for their travel time while hauling chickens from farms to the Lewiston plant. Perdue Farms settled the suit by paying $305,235 in overdue compensation with interest and agreeing to reform its overtime policies.