A group of black workers is suing the world's largest poultry meat producer, accusing it of tolerating a racist workplace where African Americans were routinely abused and a "whites only" sign was pinned to the lavatory door.
Tyson Foods is accused by 13 workers of maintaining a segregated system in a break area at one of its plants in Ashland, Alabama, that was "reminiscent of the Jim Crow era".
In addition to the posting of the "whites only" sign, the workers allege that the lavatory was padlocked and only white workers were given a key, that workers hung a noose in one of the recreation rooms and annotated a picture of monkeys with the names of black staff. When the workers complained, they say the plant manager told them the facilities had been locked because they were "nasty, dirty [and] behaved like children".
Speaking for the first time about the lawsuit, Jake Whetstone, one of the workers, told The Independent: "When I saw that sign it really hurt me. I'm 50. I grew up a time when there was segregation. I thought we had gotten over it and moved on but seeing that sign I had a flashback."
Mr Whetstone, who is married with four children, said the experience made him remember an incident from when he was a child. "I was four or five and my daddy had taken me to get ice-cream at a Dairy Queen in Alexandria City, Alabama. My daddy gave me the money and I went to the window, but the lady said she could not serve me from that window and I would have to go to another.
"I was just a child so I went to the other window and it was the same lady who came and served me. When I saw the sign on the bathroom I thought we were still locked back in that time."
Nicole De Sario, for the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a non-profit group that is supporting the workers, said since the men filed their lawsuit conditions at the factory had been increasingly tense. "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."
She added: "They want to see it changed. They hate the idea of their children having to work in such conditions."
The 13 plaintiffs are suing in a civil court, alleging a breach of the 14th Amendment, which enforces equal protection of the law. They are also alleging that their rights under the 1964 Civil Rights legislation have been breached.
Tyson Foods is based in Arkansas and operates 123 processing plants throughout the US. Every week it produces around 150 million pounds of meat. Earlier this year it donated $100,000 (£55,000) for George Bush's inauguration celebration and in 1993 it donated to similar celebrations for Bill Clinton.
No one from the company was available for comment yesterday. A statement on its website said it was surprised by the claims, which were without merit. "Our company has zero-tolerance for discrimination in the workplace. Once we learn of possible discrimination it's immediately investigated and disciplinary action is taken when warranted. The presence of any sign suggesting "whites only" or segregation of any kind is a violation of our corporate policies and contrary to our corporate culture.''
Tyson Foods was one of several meat-packing companies highlighted by a report earlier this year by Human Rights Watch, which said jobs in the meat industry were among the most dangerous in the US. It said: "Dangerous conditions are cheaper for companies, and the government does next to nothing."
© 2005 Independent News & Media (UK) Ltd.