Eighteen former Swift & Co. employees who worked at the meatpacker's Cactus, Texas, plant have filed a $23 million lawsuit alleging that Swift hired illegal workers to depress employee wages.
The suit, filed Friday in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas, claims Swift engaged in "racketeering activity" by "establishing a pattern of practice over several years and looking the other way" when illegal immigrants presented what the company should have known were falsified documents and phony stories, said Angel Reyes, a Texas lawyer who represents the former Swift employees.
Swift quietly replaced the 18 former employees - all of Mexican descent and legal residents or U.S. citizens - with illegal immigrants from Central and South American countries, Reyes said. Swift had paid the former legal workers approximately $20 an hour but paid $12 to $13 an hour to their replacements, he added.
"We're talking about a lot of illiterate folks who came from Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua not knowing how to sign their own names, but they were somehow able to provide legitimate Social Security numbers, driver's licenses and other documents?" Reyes asked Monday. "Yeah, right."
The 18 former Swift employees have, for the past year, waged another legal battle against Swift in a Texas state court. They claim to have been fired from the company after filing workers' compensation claims. While investigating that case - which is represented by another Texas law firm - Reyes said his law firm found reason to file suit against Swift for its hiring practices.
Swift has been similarly under attack in Colorado since 2004, when 26 former employees filed suit in the U.S. District Court of Colorado, alleging that they were wrongly terminated because of their disabilities. That case is still in court.
None of the cases has any merit, said Swift's general counsel, Don Wiseman.
"We do our best to keep people on the payroll, but at the end of a specified time, they have to find a permanent job that they can fill within our organization, or we are left with no choice but to let them go," he said.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement raided six of the company's seven plants nationwide Dec. 12, removing almost 1,300 employees believed to have been working illegally. In the past week, Swift has tried to determine how many workers it has lost and expects to hire roughly 1,000 replacement workers, spokesman Sean McHugh said. Swift is actively recruiting and has seen "a lot of interest in the open positions," he added.
"We really don't have a handle on the numbers yet," McHugh said. "Everything is a big cloud of dust right now."