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The BBC's Kevin Anderson in Washington
"Hi-tech companies have received increasing scrutiny for their hiring practices"
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Wednesday, 3 January, 2001, 23:38 GMT
Microsoft sued for racial discrimination
Microsoft chairman Bill Gates
Microsoft's Bill Gates: facing new lawsuit
Software giant Microsoft is facing one of the largest discrimination suits in US history as a group of current and former employees accuse the firm of racism and a "plantation mentality" in the workplace.

The seven African American plaintiffs are seeking $5bn in compensation, claiming they were paid less than their fellow employees and repeatedly passed over for promotions given to less-qualified white workers.

Microsoft does not tolerate discrimination in any of its employment practices

Microsoft spokesman
The workers, who are filing a class action suit against both Microsoft and its figurehead Bill Gates, also claim to have been subjected to racial harassment and retaliation when they complained.

Microsoft has declined to comment in detail on the case but it has vigorously defended its commitment to diversity.

"Committed to fairness"

While African-Americans make up 2.7% of Microsoft's workforce, minorities as a whole account for 22.7%, company spokesman Dean Katz said.

"Microsoft does not tolerate discrimination in any of its employment practices.

"We are committed to treating all of our employees fairly. We take these kinds of issues very seriously."

The case increases the burden of legal actions already plaguing the software giant.

"Plantation mentality"

Outlining the allegations on Wednesday, Willie Gary, the Florida lawyer who is handling the plaintiffs' case, said: "They (Microsoft) have a plantation mentality when it comes to treating African American workers."

Mr Gary pointed to 1999 government statistics that showed only 2.6% of Microsoft's 21,429 employees, and only 1.6% of the company's 5,155 managers, were black.

The case is scheduled to be heard in US District Court in Washington by Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson.

Last Spring, Judge Jackson ordered Microsoft to be split into two parts after finding the company violated antitrust law.

The appeal against the judgement, which has spawned a series of class action suits from consumers, is expected to take years to reach a conclusion.

Court embroiled

The action follows a suit filed against Microsoft in October by a black woman alleging racial and gender bias. The case is still pending.

Microsoft last month agreed to pay $97m to thousands of long-term workers who were hired as temporary staff, and denied benefits given to permanent employees.

The lawsuit, the so-called 'permatemp' case, was filed in 1992.

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