Three Oklahoma men filed a federal class-action lawsuit Tuesday alleging that they were modern-day slaves forced by a drug rehabilitation program to work for free in chicken processing plants, reports the Center for Investigative Reporting’s Reveal. Reveal reported last week that judges across the U.S. have ordered defendants into rehab programs that double as work camps for for-profit companies. The investigation focused on Christian Alcoholics & Addicts in Recovery, or CAAIR, an Oklahoma program that puts hundreds of men a year to work slaughtering chickens at processing plants owned by Simmons Foods Inc. The men work for free, under constant threat of prison, on products for big-name brands, including Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, KFC and Rachael Ray’s Nutrish pet food. The rehab program keeps their wages.
“By defrauding these men and providing virtual slave labor for a private corporation, CAAIR and Simmons are not only violating longstanding labor laws, they are violating basic standards of human decency and the core concepts underpinning our constitutional democracy,” said the firm that filed suit, Smolen, Smolen & Roytman. The men are seeking more than $5 million. The complaint alleges violations of state and federal labor laws, which require employers to pay employees at least minimum wage and overtime for their work. The men at CAAIR made nothing. The few who graduated from the one-year program were eligible for a $1,000 gift. The lawsuit alleges that the program violates the 13th Amendment ban on slave labor and involuntary servitude. It says the program constitutes human trafficking under Oklahoma state law and accuses CAAIR of committing fraud by not providing men with drug and alcohol rehabilitation services they were promised. Janet Wilkerson, a founder of CAAIR and a former poultry company executive, said that the men’s wages go toward the cost of the program, including paying for their housing, food and classes.