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Lawsuit accuses IBP of keeping pay down by hiring illegal aliens


ROCK ISLAND, Ill. -- IBP Inc., the top U.S. beef processor, was sued by two former workers who say the company acquired last year by Tyson Foods Inc. artificially depressed wages for hourly employees by hiring illegal immigrants.

The lawsuit filed Wednesday by employees Deborah Baker and Richard Enyeart claims the Dakota Dunes, S.D.-based company violated federal racketeering laws.

Baker and Enyeart, who worked at the Joslin meatpacking plant, contend the company intentionally seeks to obtain illegal aliens as cheap labor and that about half the 2,000 workers there are illegally in the United States.

"IBP perpetrates the illegal immigrant hiring scheme through a complex and highly disciplined network of recruiters throughout the world," says the suit, which requests class-action status for all legal employees, damages and a halt to IBP's alleged recruiting of illegal aliens. 'BASELESS' CHARGES

Gary Mickelson, an IBP spokesman, called the allegations "baseless" and "defamatory."

"Our company uses all available tools provided by the federal government to verify the employment eligibility of our team members," he said.

The charges echo allegations made in a federal indictment in Tennessee in December, which charged IBP's parent, Tyson Foods Inc., hired illegal immigrants at 15 poultry processing plants to cut costs.

Springdale, Ark.-based Tyson entered an innocent plea at a January hearing and said the charges are unfounded.

Shares of Tyson, the world's biggest meat processor with fiscal 2001 sales of $10.7 billion, fell 1 cent to $12.74 on the New York Stock Exchange on Friday.

In the Illinois suit, Baker says she is a U.S. citizen who earned as much as $9 an hour while working for IBP in 1997 and 1998. Enyeart says he is a U.S. citizen who earned as much as $9.42 an hour at IBP from 1997 through 2001. They say a rival's plant 50 miles away pays $4 more per hour than IBP and doesn't hire illegal workers. RAID IN 1997 ALLEGED

The suit says the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service has frequently raided the Joslin plant and that a 1997 investigation resulted in the detention of 128 workers who agreed to return to Mexico.

The suit claims the company learns of immigration service inspections in advance, and when inspectors arrive, some illegal workers hide in cold meat lockers while others take the day off.

Mickelson said there was only one immigration service raid and that IBP cooperated fully and wasn't fined or penalized. He said IBP has "worked closely with the INS for many years to prevent the employment of unauthorized workers."

And he said wages are comparable with other companies' plants and are "vigorously" negotiated by the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.