A former employee of Esskay Inc.'s Landover meat plant filed federal charges against the company yesterday, claiming he was fired for blowing the whistle on alleged discrimination against foreign-born workers there.
Robert B. Miller of Washington said he was fired in March because he challenged the company's practice of frequently requiring foreign workers to show alien registration cards known as green cards or be sent home without pay.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which filed the charges for Mr. Miller with the Justice Department's special counsel for immigration labor practices, said his case apparently is the first challenge under the retaliation provision of the 1986 Immigration Reform Act.
"This practice has a chilling effect on Esskay workers, many of whom are foreign born: If they tell about an illegal act, they get fired," said Susan Goering, legal director of Maryland ACLU. Employers require documentation when any worker is hired but may not repeatedly harass employees for such documents, she said.
Esskay denied the charges, saying Mr. Miller was fired for "totally unrelated" reasons that it would not disclose. "His conduct with management was out of line," said Leslie R. Stellman, a lawyer for the Baltimore-based meatpacker.
Esskay acquired the former Mash's ham plant a year ago and had been warned this year by U.S. immigration officials that it could face serious fines if it employed undocumented workers, Mr. Stellman said. The plant had a history of such problems under previous owners, he said, and Esskay was attempting to obtain missing documentation for certain employees.
But Mr. Miller said daily checks of selected "foreign-looking workers," which ran from February to April, were "based on daily visual assumptions by security guards, not on checking IDs of everyone."
The green card checks took place as the Food and Commercial Workers union was attempting to negotiate the first contract for about 100 workers at the plant.
Mr. Miller said he thought the checks were meant to intimidate workers during the negotiations.
He said he was fired the first work day after he complained about the practice to Richard Eventoff, negotiations chief for Local 27 of the union.
The union has not decided whether to fight for Mr. Miller's job, Mr. Eventoff said yesterday, but will do so if the firing was based on union activity. He said he did not disclose Mr. Miller's name to the company.
Mr. Miller said about 10 employees were sent home without pay because they lacked identity documents, but Mr. Stellman said the company had no knowledge of that. No one was fired because of the checks, the lawyer said.
"The policy was not directed at me, an Anglo-American, but against foreign workers," Mr. Miller said. "But it was bad for all workers, and I had to speak out."
If the government agency investigates the charges, it could fine the company $250 to $2,000 under the immigration act, Ms. Goering said.
Although the 1986 act provided amnesty for illegal aliens already working in the United States, it required all new employees to provide proof of nationality or work status.