Sauerkraut Firm Abused Migrant Workers’ Rights

     (CN) — The world’s largest producer of sauerkraut unlawfully slashed wages of Mexican immigrant workers and failed to give them written terms of employment, a federal judge ruled.
     GLK Foods LLC has employed migrant workers from Mexico as trim-line laborers to process raw cabbage into sauerkraut in Bear Creek, Wis., since the 1990s, under the federal government’s H-2B guest-worker visa program.
     One of the workers, Alexandro Jurado Jimenez, sued GLK and its owner and president, Ryan Downs, in federal court, on behalf of about 210 migrants who worked during one or more of the 2006 through 2011 seasons, except for 2009, when GLK missed the visa deadline.
     The court granted those plaintiffs summary judgment on their claim that GLK violated the Fair Labor Standards Act by failing to pay certain 2010 and 2011 workers minimum wage.
     Another worker, Jose Enriquez Ramirez, filed a similar suit on behalf of about 35 other H-2B workers who GLK recruited in 2011, but did not employ, even after they had paid for visas.
     The plaintiffs in both cases claim that neither GLK, nor any agent on its behalf, provided workers hired from 2006 to 2011 with written disclosures of terms of employment or contracts, as required by the Agricultural Worker Protection Act and the Wisconsin Migrant Labor Act.
     GLK also took unauthorized deductions from workers’ paychecks, and failed to make and keep records of workers’ permanent addresses, in 2011, according to the plaintiffs.
     Plus, GLK allegedly failed to employ the 2010 and 2011 workers for the promised term of employment, pay them a prevailing wage, and provide them with return transportation to their homes in Mexico, in violation of Wisconsin’s living wage law and breach of contract.
     The plaintiffs sought summary judgment as to liability and damages on those claims.
     Chief U.S. District Judge William Griesbach partially granted the motion Monday.
     “GLK does not dispute that it failed to provide written disclosures of work terms or work agreements to any workers, and that it failed to make and keep records of the permanent addresses of the named plaintiffs in Jimenez,” Griesbach wrote. “Accordingly, with respect to liability on the claims above, there is no genuine dispute of fact and plaintiffs are entitled to judgment as a matter of law.”
     The court rejected claim that it is unclear whether GLK took unauthorized housing deductions from the 2011 workers’ paychecks based on handwritten notes thereon.
     “At most, the notations show only that some of the workers may have known GLK was deducting $75 per week from their paychecks for housing, not that they authorized the deduction,” Griesbach wrote. “The employee’s signature on the form attests only that he ‘physically resided in the State of Wisconsin for 10 months or more,’ which of course was factually untrue.”
     The 2011 practice “stands in sharp contrast to what was done in earlier years when GLK had obtained the workers’ explicit written authorization to take deductions for room and board in separate, unequivocal forms,” according to the ruling. “Thus, it is clear as a matter of law that GLK violated the [Wisconsin Migrant Labor Act] when it took deductions from 2011 class members’ paychecks for food and lodging without first obtaining their written authorization.”
     The court tossed aside the claim that an 87 percent federal wage increase in 2011 justified GLK sending workers home right after they arrived in Wisconsin or at the U.S. border.
     “A wage increase that never went into effect does not constitute justification for violating a work arrangement under the [Agricultural Worker Protection Act]; nor does it constitute the kind of serious adverse circumstance beyond the employer’s control that would justify terminating the employment of migrant workers under the [Wisconsin Migrant Labor Act] before the term of the work agreement.”
     The judge declined to determine the amount of the damages.
     One of the workers’ attorneys, Joshua Karsh with Hughes Socol Piers Resnick & Dym Ltd. in Chicago, said migrants are “among the most exploited sectors of the American workforce. Too often, violations of their rights go unreported and un-redressed.”
     But H-2B workers “should not be taken advantage of,” Karsh said.
     “The laws protecting them should be strictly observed and strictly enforced,” Karsh added. “We’re gratified that the court’s ruling vindicates these workers’ rights, and we are hopeful that this will send a message both to this employer and to other employers that the penalties for exploiting visa workers can be steep.”
     The defendants’ attorneys, Michael Aldana, Sean Scullen, and Nicholas Anderson with Quarles & Brady LLP in Milwaukee, did not return requests for comment.
     GLK processes more than 120,000 tons of raw cabbage into sauerkraut annually and sells its product under brand names including Cortland Valley, Silver Floss, and Krrrrisp Kraut.

%d bloggers like this: