GLK 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in August, a couple weeks before the wage hike was going to take effect, although the proposal was eventually withdrawn under "political pressure," according to Piers.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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