Mexican Workers Sue Wisconsin Sauerkraut Factory

mexican workers sue sauerkraut factoryGLK Foods has been making sauerkraut in Bear Creek, Wis., for 112 years. Sauerkraut-making was an industry built by German immigrants, but it's now Mexican migrant workers who fill much of its ranks, cutting, fermenting and canning more cabbage at GLK Foods alone than the entire German nation. Sixty-five of those Mexican immigrants have now filed a class action lawsuit against GLK Foods for "violations of almost every term of their agreement and statutory rights," in the words of Matthew Piers, one of the lawyers representing the workers.

Since 2006, GLK Foods (formerly known as the Great Lakes Kraut Co.) recruited hundreds of Mexican immigrants through the H-2B visa program, which allows companies to hire foreign workers temporarily, usually for low-wage work. A company can only hire immigrants with this visa if there are no Americans "able, willing, qualified, and available" to do the work.

"We don't have that workforce in this country anymore," explains Piers. "These are the least desirable jobs in our economy. They're backbreaking jobs, and they don't pay well."

Abuse is also rampant in the program, Piers claims. The workers are tied by the visas to a particular employer, and so complaining about the conditions of their employment could cost them their livelihoods.

"Migrant workers want to be able to come back next year and the year after," says Weeun Wang, a senior attorney with the advocacy group Farmworker Justice, who is the second lawyer representing the immigrants. "It's a very exploitable labor pool."

The particular case of abuse at GLK Foods only emerged, the lawyers say, because the workers were fired last year. In the summer of 2011, the Department of Labor was pushing for a wage hike for H-2B visa holders. GLK Foods fired the Mexican immigrants in August, a couple weeks before the wage hike was going to take effect, although the proposal was eventually withdrawn under "political pressure," according to Piers.

They were replaced by "Haitian undocumented workers" through a Florida contractor, he says.

In a separate class action lawsuit, two named plaintiffs say GLK Foods stranded them at the border town of Matamoros, Mexico. After incurring various fees and transportation expenses under the promise of employment, the workers were allegedly told "no work, no jobs, go home," says Piers.

By law, all H-2B recruits must be paid at least the minimum wage, can't be made to pay for the privilege of their recruitment, and in general can't have deductions taken from their paychecks that would push their take-home pay below the minimum wage. They must also be given at least 40 hours of work a week and the terms of the employment in writing.

"It's a protection with regards to the visa workers," Piers explains. "But it's also a protection with regards to the U.S. labor force, so that Mexican workers aren't being brought in to the bring down wages."

The 65 named plaintiffs in the lawsuit claim the recruited workers weren't paid the minimum wage, weren't given 40 hours a week of work, and never had their conditions of employment in writing. Many also say they had to cough up $1,000 to $1,500 in recruitment fees.

They're suing the company and its owner and president Ryan Downs, seeking damages under the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, Wisconsin's Migrant Labor Act, and the Wisconsin Wage Payments, Claims and Collections Act.

According to Piers, there are half a dozen similar cases currently pending in the U.S. that involve H-2B and H-2A, which covers agricultural labor, but there are probably far more cases of abuse that go unreported.

"It's difficult for the worker to step forward, because you have to make the tradeoff," says Wang. "If I complain about what I'm being paid or the conditions under which I'm working, will I have this job?"

When the workers lose their jobs, however, stepping forward becomes much easier.

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since we have a la raza former executive as the secretary of labor telling illegals to turn in their employers for stuff like this im surprised we havent heard more about it
like lucy said i cant beleive theirs no one that would be interested in the job to begin with

March 13 2012 at 3:53 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

How is this a surprise. Cheap ass company needs to hire Americans. Dont tell me there are no Americans to do the job as there is almost 20% real unemployment in this country.

March 12 2012 at 2:41 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Lucy's comment
Ranting Loons

Actually Lucy, the number of Americans willing to WORK VERY HARD for minimum wage, vs getting welfare for doing nothing, is small. Many of us would LIKE to believe there are those willing to do the work instead of getting a handout, but the handout is easy.

March 12 2012 at 3:12 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Ranting Loons's comment

Excuse me, but how many people are on welfare right now? Millions....not a small number.

March 13 2012 at 4:19 PM Report abuse rate up rate down

Gee what a surprise! They are at the bottom of the pool in terms of skill and education, chose to accept the terms and now feel like they've been cheated.Well, go back to Mexico and see what kind of job Calderon has waiting for you there. That would be, strapping on 100 kilos of coke or marijuana and force marched across the desert to make delivery for how much? By the way, that job has no government backed agreements. Besides a bullet in the back once you cross into America.

March 12 2012 at 2:38 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

All employers should take warning from this.
Hire foreign workers and they will sue you as soon as they can.
Pay decent wages and Americans will do this work.

March 12 2012 at 2:10 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to golfkidd58's comment
Ranting Loons

The problem is, consumers are willing to pay $3/jar for Saurkraut, but not $7/jar to cover the costs of "decent wages". Additionally, there are fewer American workers willing to do the "hard work" as it goes against the entitlement mindset.

March 12 2012 at 3:13 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Ranting Loons's comment

I agree with your first statement, but as for the hard work that American's will not do is bunk.

March 16 2012 at 2:56 PM Report abuse rate up rate down

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