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Jim Crow system at a Tyson factory

By Alan Maass | September 30, 2005 | Page 2

TYSON FOODS, the world's largest poultry producer, has been accused by Black workers of presiding over a racist workplace where African Americans suffer routine abuse.

Twelve workers at an Ashland, Ala., plant filed suit against the company, charging, among other things, that Tyson maintains a segregated break room and bathroom at the factory--40 years after the official abolition of Jim Crow segregation.

The workers say a "whites only" sign was posted on the wall, and the bathroom was kept padlocked, and only white workers were given a key. When the Black employees complained, the plant manager told them the bathroom had been locked because they were "nasty, dirty [and] behaved like children."

The Black workers also found a noose left in one of the recreation rooms, and a drawing of monkeys labeled with the names of Black staff. "I grew up a time when there was segregation," one of the workers who filed suit, Jake Whetstone, told Britain's Independent newspaper. "I thought we had gotten over it and moved on, but seeing that sign, I had a flashback."

The federal government's Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has also joined the lawsuit, which was filed in August.

According to the lawsuit, when two Black employees complained about segregation at the plant, they were subjected to suspensions and disciplinary reports. Conditions at the factory have grown more tense, said Nicole De Sario of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a nonprofit group that is supporting the workers. "The majority of them are still working at the plant," she said. "Ashland, Alabama, is a small rural town and there are not a lot of jobs available. They have children to feed."

Tyson is one of several meatpacking companies highlighted in a Human Rights Watch report earlier this year that exposed unsafe working conditions. "Dangerous conditions are cheaper for companies," the report concluded, "and the government does next to nothing."

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