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Sauerkraut Workers Protest Their Canning

GREEN BAY, Wisc. (CN) - In a federal class action, 66 Mexican citizens with visas to work in the United States claim the world's largest sauerkraut factory fired them when faced with the prospect that it might have to pay them higher wages.

Lead plaintiff Alejandro Jurado Jimenez sued GLK Foods and its owner and president Ryan A. Downs. GLK Foods (Great Lakes Kraut Foods), of Bear Creek, Wisc., "considers itself to be the largest sauerkraut producer in the world, and maker of America's top selling brands of sauerkraut," according to the complaint.

Jurado says GLK fired him and his 65 co-workers when the cannery believed it would have to increase their pay, under a U.S. Department of Labor rule on foreign guest workers.

Congress blocked the Labor Department from implementing the wage increase, but Jurado says GLK fired him and his class and replaced with a migrant work crew provided by a farm labor contractor from Florida.

The sauerkraut workers trimmed, cut and prepared raw cabbage. They were in the United States with H-2B work visas. To get the visas, GLK Foods had to certify to the Labor Department that "there are insufficient available workers within the United States to perform the job, and the employment of aliens will not adversely affect the wages and working conditions of similarly employed U.S. workers."

The visa rules also required that GLK pay a wage during the entire certification period that "equals or exceeds the highest of the most recent prevailing wage, the applicable federal, state, or local minimum wage"; provide at least 40 hours per week of work for each worker; provide work for the entire certified period of employment; comply with all federal, state, and local employment laws and regulations; and provide or pay for return transportation from the job site to the workers' homes if workers are terminated before the end of the certified period of employment. GLK also had to certify that it did not seek or collect payment "from an employee for any activity related to obtaining labor certification, including payment of recruiting costs," according to the complaint.

GLK Foods certified its workers for H-2B visas from 2006 to 2011. Jurado seeks certification of two classes: 2006-2008 workers and 2010-2011 workers.

The 2006-2008 class claims it was not provided with required disclosures and written employment agreements, and that deductions were taken illegally from their paychecks for room and board.

The 2010-2011 class claims it was not paid the prevailing wage rate, was stiffed for overtime pay, and was not given 40 hours work per week during the entire certified period of employment.

The 2010-2011 class also claims that they had to pay numerous expenses, including "recruitment fees of between $1,000 and $1,500; the costs of Mexican passports; travel expenses from their respective homes in Mexico to the United States Consulate in Matamoros, Mexico; visa application fees and other expenses necessary to obtain the H-2B visas; lodging expenses in Matamoros, Mexico pending approval of visa applications and before transportation to Wisconsin was arranged; travel expenses from the lodging in Matamoros, Mexico to the border with the United States; and border crossing fees charged by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services."

The workers say they were not reimbursed for any of these costs.

The workers are represented by Matthew J. Piers with Hughes Socol Piers Resnick & Dym of Chicago and Weeun Wang of Farmworker Justice.

They seek 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.

A second class action was filed by two class members.

Jose Enriquez Ramirez and Isidro Enriquez Ramirez say they were told 2 hours before their first sauerkraut shift began that they were no longer needed. They say they paid for all the costs of their recruitment, immigration documents, and travel expenses to and from Mexico, but GLK Foods Ryan Downs never reimbursed them.

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