July 5 2002

Mexican workers reach settlement in landmark discrimination suit

By Jose Luis Cubra
The News (Mexico City)

WASHINGTON, June 29, 2002 — The Mexican government and a group of Mexican workers have reached a 3.2 million-dollar settlement with DeCoster Egg Farms in a landmark discrimination lawsuit, the Mexican Embassy announced Friday.

The 1998 suit accused the Maine company of racism and rights violations in its treatment of 14 immigrant male and female workers from 1988-1997.

“It’s vindication,” said Karen Wolf, the workers’ lawyer. “It means that they have the ability to stand up for their rights, which is something that for over a decade people who worked at that farm didn’t think they could do.”

The settlement was reached June 10 and presented before U.S. District Judge Brock Hornby on June 20, said Ben Guiliani, executive director of the Maine Migrant Workers Advocate Group.

The suit was the first time the Mexican government had gone to court with a U.S. company over labor conditions.

“It sends a message to other companies that may exploit or mistreat Mexican workers that it can be very costly,” Giuliani said.

In January 2000, the court fined DeCoster 6 million dollars in a class action suit, but five months later it ruled that the workers would have to file individual suits to continue, Guiliani said.

The 3.2 million dollars will be shared by all immigrant workers employed at DeCoster between 1988 and 1997, not just the 14 named in the suit. Each worker will receive a part of the settlement relative to the number of weeks he lived or worked at DeCoster during that time.

Guiliani said Luis Ramirez, who brought the case to Guiliani’s attention, only wanted to pursue the action if it would benefit all affected workers.

The suit alleged that the workers were abused verbally, forced to live and work in unhealthy conditions, denied promised raises, and prevented from seeing people outside the farm.

According to the suit, non-immigrant workers were not subjected to such treatment. One example, according to the Boston Globe , was that DeCoster would force up to three immigrant families to live in one trailer, while white families had trailers of their own.

Shortly after the suit was filed, a lawyer for Maine Ag and Quality Egg of New England, DeCoster’s owner, called it “nothing more than a money grab.”

Wolf said the settlement is good news for the many Mexicans who still work at DeCoster.

“For the foreseeable future, these people can be safe and secure from discrimination in this workplace,” the attorney said.

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