ICE Raids Miss. Plant After $3.75 Million Sexual Harassment Settlement

A family member affected by the ICE raid on Koch Food Inc, ,looks through a fence as immigrant workers are brought into a temporary detention facility at a Mississippi Air National Guard base (Clarion-Ledger)

Today, ICE carried out what is believed to be the largest immigration raid in decades when they detained 680 workers at seven poultry plants in Morton, Mississippi.

The workers, many of them members of the United Food and Commercial Workers union (UFCW), were employed by a company called Koch Foods Inc, which employs 13,000 workers throughout the US. (Koch Foods Inc. has no connection or relation to the billionaire political donor Koch Brothers).

The UFCW, which represents workers at the plant, has been meeting with community groups and immigrants rights activists to mobilize community and legal support on behalf of the workers.

As buses full of poultry workers arrived pulled up to the Mississippi National Guard base at Flowood, Mississippi 70 family members and supporters families gathered shouting at the armed guards,  “Let Them Go! Let Them Go!” as workers were taken into the makeshift detention facility.

The detention suffered by immigrants is yet another abuse suffered by immigrant poultry workers employed by Koch Foods Inc in Morton, Mississippi.

In 2018, following a nearly eight-year-long legal battle, Koch Foods Inc. settled a $3.75 million brought by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against Koch Food Inc at the plant. The lawsuit alleged that Koch Foods Inc supervisors engaged in both racial and sexual harassment of Latina workers at its Morton, Mississippi plant.

The lawsuit brought by the EEOC against Koch Food Inc’s alleged “that supervisors touched and/or made sexually suggestive comments to female Hispanic employees, hit Hispanic employees and charged many of them money for normal everyday work activities.”

As part of its settlement, Koch Foods Inc. agreed to a three-year federal consent decree to change its discriminatory practices. As part of the consent decree, Koch Foods Inc. was forced to create a 24-hour-a-day bilingual hotline for workers to use to file complaints.

Many immigrants rights advocates have speculated that workers are targeted for raids after their facilities get investigated for worker abuse.

In June of 2018, ICE raided a unionized Fresh Mark meatpacking plant in Salem, Ohio; arresting 140 workers.

A week before the raid on a Fresh Mark’s Salem facility, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) fined Fresh Mark $211,194 for three separate incidents in which proper guards for dangerous machinery were not in place. OSHA found that the lack of safety guards resulted in the death of an undocumented worker.

In December of 2017, Domingo Ramos, a 49-year-old undocumented worker from Guatemala, was killed in the plant when his foot was sucked into a rotating auger, ripping off his lower leg and leading to him bleeding to death.

Suspicion was also raised that workers complaining about working conditions in plants lead toa raid at the Southeastern Provision in Morristown, Tennesse. The raid came after federal authorities were tipped off by a local bank that the owner of the plant may have been paying undocumented workers under the table.

The United Food and Commercial Workers immediately denounced the raid.

“Our top priority right now is to provide whatever assistance and counsel we can to any of our impacted members and their families,” said UFCW spokesperson Abraham White. “Workers across this country are too scared to stand up for their rights and to report wage theft, dangerous work conditions, and other workplace issues. We must act now to end this dangerous climate of fear”

The UFCW has previously represented workers in its plant targeted by raids. Already, the UFCW has been meeting with local immigrants activists in Mississippi to coordinate a strategy to respond to the raid.

While it’s unclear if the raids are being triggered by federal authorities responding to the mistreatment of workers, the overall effect of these raids has had a chilling effect on workers speaking out.

“These raids send a real signal to immigrant workers not to speak up, and we feel like these raids enable employers in the most dangerous industry to cut corners and violate labor standards,” said Debbie Berkowitz, who served as chief of staff of OSHA under Obama from 2009 to 2013 and now serves as the director of the worker health and safety program at the National Employment Law Project (NELP).

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" Mike Elk is the founder of Payday Report and also covers labor and immigration for The Guardian. In 2015, he was illegally fired for union organizing as Politico’s senior labor reporter and used his $70,000 NLRB settlement to start Payday. The son of United Electrical Workers (UE) Director of Organization Gene Elk, he lives in his hometown of Pittsburgh and has dinner with his folks regularly. He can be reached at Melk@PaydayReport.com A Sidney Award winner and proud graduate of Woodland Hills, Elk lives in his hometown of Pittsburgh.."