10/16/2008

SPLC Sues Tennessee Cheese Company After Latino Workers Seeking Pay are Arrested, Threatened with Deportation

A dozen Latino workers at a Tennessee cheese factory went weeks without pay and endured an abusive work environment before demanding paychecks from an employer, who then had them arrested, jailed and threatened with deportation, according to a lawsuit filed today by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC).

The federal lawsuit charges that Durrett Cheese Sales of Manchester, Tenn., its president and several members of the Coffee County Sheriff's Department conspired to violate the rights of the workers by falsely charging them with trespassing after they stopped working and demanded paychecks that had been delayed several weeks.

"The company used the Coffee County Sheriff's Department and ICE to retaliate against employees exercising their legal rights to stage a peaceful work stoppage," said Mary Bauer, director of the SPLC's Immigrant Justice Project. "The sheriff's department didn't even bother to protect the rights of these workers."

Filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee in Nashville, the lawsuit alleges violation of federal law, including the Fair Labor Standards Act. It also alleges violation of the Tennessee Human Rights Act, infliction of emotional distress and malicious prosecution.

Durrett hired indigent Mexican workers to perform various jobs at the factory, including the slicing, packaging and processing of cheese. The company specifically targeted members of the Mixteco indigenous group in the Manchester area to work at the factory. These workers were subjected to a hostile, intimidating and abusive work environment, where they were referred to as "stupid Indians" and "donkeys." Non-Latino workers did not experience the same delay in their paychecks, threats or derogatory remarks.

The company, in fact, repeatedly failed to pay the Latino workers on time before and after filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on Aug. 28, 2007. Some workers sometimes worked for more than a month without pay. Other times they were underpaid or paid with checks backed with insufficient funds. Durrett also repeatedly changed their pay dates. One of Durrett's supervisors threatened that if the workers quit they would not receive any of their back pay.

On Oct. 22, 2007, the workers refused to leave the company break room and return to work until they received their back pay. When a supervisor fired them and told them to leave, they refused.

The Coffee County Sheriff's Department was called and the workers were arrested even though the police were informed that the workers were involved in a pay dispute. The workers were jailed for trespassing — a charge dropped by the district attorney the next day. Yet the workers remained in the Coffee County Jail because their employer suggested they were undocumented immigrants and conspired with law enforcement to have the workers detained by immigration officials.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) took the workers to the Elizabeth Detention Center in Nashville, where they were interrogated. Many of the workers are mothers of young children, some of whom are disabled or very ill. The women feared they would be deported without saying goodbye to them and arranging for their care. An attorney eventually secured their release.

"This case is a shameful reminder there are employers who believe the color of their workers' skin or their home country determines if they will be paid for an honest day's work or even treated with basic human dignity," Bauer said. "Ignoring this abuse hurts all workers. It makes us complicit in creating a class of worker devoid of any rights."