Uprooting illegal hiring

Outside editorial

Posted: Thursday, December 27, 2001

This editorial appeared in today's Los Angeles Times:

Workers and business leaders alike should cheer the Immigration and Naturalization Service's 2 1/2-year investigation of Tyson Foods' labor practices, an inquiry that concluded last week with a 36-count grand jury indictment of the nation's largest poultry processor. Attacking illegal hiring at the source will prove far more effective than simply rounding up and deporting those who come north to pluck and package chickens.

The government alleges, among other charges, that Tyson and six current or former executives conspired to recruit illegal workers from Mexico and transport them to 15 plants in nine states. It also accuses the firm of helping illegal immigrants obtain false Social Security numbers and California identification cards. Tyson, which has 120,000 employees and $10.5 billion in annual revenues, calls some of the claims exaggerated and others false. A hearing before a U.S. magistrate is scheduled for next month.

Whatever the outcome of this case, the government must continue to investigate schemes to exploit illegal workers. Not that such lawbreaking is new. Since the bracero guest worker agreement with Mexico ended in the 1960s, for instance, California agribusiness has found ways to finagle cheap if illegal labor. The same applies to the meatpacking industry, once staffed by highly paid, unionized employees. Now low-paid immigrant workers do most of the hard, bloody work. The INS estimates that at least one of four workers in these industries is in the United States illegally.

The best way to keep businesses from cheating in their hiring practices is for Mexico and the United States to work out immigration reforms that recognize both nations' economic and social realities.

Meanwhile, if it turns out that Tyson is guilty of the charges against it, the courts should show no mercy. Prosecutors want Tyson to forfeit the financial gain it allegedly realized through illegal practices, which could mean more than $100 million in fines. Executives also could face jail time. If that's what it takes to change these industries' culture, so be it. Businesses that use illegal workers are far more likely to be unsafe and to ignore other labor protections, such as restrictions on overtime hours. Beyond that, unfair labor practices in these indispensable industries undermine honest businesses' ability to compete.

Meat inspectors can never rest in their efforts to protect consumers from E. coli and salmonella. Federal authorities must become equally relentless in rooting out the illegal labor practices that poison the meat industries.



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