US protein behemoth Tyson Foods was sued by the US Department of Labour (DOL) yesterday [Thursday] because it is not paying its low-waged workers for the time they take to don and remove their protective work clothes.

"Most poultry workers are immigrants who earn less than US$7 an hour," Labour Secretary Elaine Chao told Reuters: "We want to make sure they are getting paid what they deserve, especially when they are performing health and safety precautions that are required by their work."

Tyson claims however that it is not breaking any laws, and that yesterday's lawsuit "is clearly contradicted by three recent federal court decisions and over fifty years of industry practice sanctioned by the Department of Labour".

"'Donning and doffing,' as referred to in the lawsuit, is nothing more than putting on clothing, which in our plants, typically includes a hairnet, earplugs, and a white lab coat," explained Tyson in a statement: "To put this in perspective, 'donning and doffing' is something most of us do every day, whether we're construction workers putting on hardhats and gloves or office workers putting on business attire.

"In addition, the average wage of a Tyson production team member is US$8.63 plus full benefits, not less than US$7."

"Rather than trying to change wage and hour laws through litigation, the Department should either go to Congress and change the law or engage in a formal rulemaking."

The threat of similar simultaneous action against Tyson rival Perdue Farms has resulted in a private settlement worth more than US$10m in back wages to 25,000 former and current employees. The US department argued that each worker is entitled to an extra US$5,000 a year for the time spent preparing for work, and Perdue will also change the future pay practices at all of its US poultry processing facilities.

Company chairman Jim Perdue said in a statement: "For many years various lawsuits have left this issue unresolved, thus creating confusion in the workplace. It is for that reason that it was important to us to resolve this issue."

"This is not a fine or penalty," he added, "but the thoughtful resolution of an unsettled issue that directly benefits our associates by putting additional money in their hands."

The DOL is hoping that other industry players will follow Perdue's example. Tammy D. McCutchen, administrator of DOL's Wage and Hour Division commented: "We hope this settlement with Perdue will be a model for the industry."

In the meantime, however, the government is seeking back wages, liquidated damages for current and former employees at Tyson's Alabama plant and changes to the Tyson's pay practices.