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Company taking over XL Foods being sued over alleged racial and religious harassment

Saturday, October 20, 2012

XL Foods workers attend a union press conference in Brooks this week. Photograph by: Gavin Young, Calgary Herald

OTTAWA — The Brazilian-owned company taking over a troubled XL Foods facility in Alberta is being sued by a U.S. government agency for alleged mistreatment of Muslim, Somali and black employees.

JBS USA will assume management of the XL Foods facility in Brooks, Alberta, the source of E. coli contamination that last month triggered the largest meat recall in Canadian history.

The U.S. branch of the Brazil-based company is defending lawsuits in Colorado and Nebraska brought by the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission in 2010 that claim these employees were subject to “hostile work environment because of their race, national origin, and/or religion.”

Many of the employees working the kill floor at the Brooks plant that JBS USA will manage are temporary foreign workers. Many are black and some come from Somalia.

One lawsuit, filed on behalf of employees of JBS USA’s Swift & Company facility in Greely, Colorado, claims their supervisors and other workers threw meat, blood and bones at the Muslim workers and used offensive language towards them.

The lawsuit claims JBS staff referred to Muslim and black employees as “Bitch,” “Son of a Bitch,” “F*cker,” and “Bimbo” and alleges they were exposed to graffiti in the factory that read “Somalis are disgusting,” “F*ck Somalians, F*ck Muslims, F*ck Mohammed,” along with a vile racial slur.

The company taking over the XL Foods cattle processing plant in Brooks, Alta. is at the centre of lawsuits from its U.S. employees. Photograph by: Jeff McIntosh, THE CANADIAN PRESS

The allegations have not been proved in court.

The company did not respond to calls requesting comment on Friday but in court documents, JBS USA denied it committed any unlawful employment practices. It denied there was harassment of Muslim, Somali and black employees and argued that the EEOC should have first exhausted administrative remedies before suing.

The company did not accommodate the needs of Muslim employees to pray five times daily during Ramadan and retaliated against those who used bathroom breaks to pray, the complaint claims.

It also alleges that Swift employees turned off water fountains or cordoned them off with red and yellow tape usually used to denote rotten meat, so that they couldn’t drink water while fasting for the religious holiday.

Similar litigation in Nebraska alleges that employees at JBS USA’s Grand Island, facility were harassed with comments such as “lazy Somali” and “go back to your country,” made by supervisors. It also claims a failure to accommodate the religious beliefs of Muslim employees. Some employees who protested lack of Ramadan accommodation were unlawfully terminated by claiming they had engaged in an unauthorized work stoppage, the lawsuits allege.

The EEOC said it received more than 160 complaints against JBS USA in the two states in 2008. The litigation against the company was launched after the EEOC investigated the claims.

The cases are scheduled for trial in April 2013.

News that JBS USA would begin running the Brooks plant have touched off speculation that XL Foods will be sold to the multinational food processing giant.


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