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Saturday, April 22, 2006

The exploiters

What Was Behind the Big Raid
An informant triggered the nationwide sweep. Investigators say a plant in New York flaunted the law and mistreated its illegal workers.
By Nicole Gaouette, Times Staff Writer
April 22, 2006

WASHINGTON — When Peter Smith, a senior immigration enforcement agent in upstate New York, led the raid on a cavernous IFCO Systems wood products plant just outside of Albany this week, he was taken aback by what he saw.

"There was a lot of drilling, cutting, dismantling of old pallets, pneumatic nail guns, power saws. Most of these guys were working in jeans, tennis shoes, short-sleeve shirts; some had sawdust in their hair," he said. "No legal facility would let workers work in those conditions."

Wednesday's raid at the plant in Guilderland was one of about 40 at IFCO facilities in 26 states. The operation offered a look into the shadowy world of businesses that the government says do more than turn a blind eye to hiring illegal immigrants: They make such workers part of the basic business plan.

In IFCO's case, the government says, managers systematically recruited illegal immigrants — helping them procure false identification, assisting with transportation beyond the border, even coaching them on how to avoid trouble with the police. Then, the workers allegedly were given jobs in substandard conditions.

Officials at IFCO's Houston headquarters did not respond to calls for comment, but in a news release Friday the company said it was cooperating with authorities and had begun an internal investigation.

"We are now working to understand the facts and implement any additional changes necessary to further improve current procedures," the statement said.

Smith said he had never seen illegal hiring on such a large scale. About 1,200 workers were arrested on suspicion of being illegal immigrants, and seven IFCO managers were charged with immigration-related crimes. The raids set a record for federal workplace-enforcement arrests in a single day.

Tina Sciocchetti, assistant U.S. attorney for the Northern District of New York, whose office is overseeing the case because the investigation began in New York, called the numbers "eye-popping." As many as 53% of IFCO's 3,500 workers nationwide were using invalid Social Security numbers, she said.

At most sizable companies, Sciocchetti said, fewer than 1% of workers would have irregularities in their Social Security numbers.

In announcing the arrests Thursday, Glenn T. Suddaby, U.S. attorney for the district, said that "being able to hire that cheap labor" gave a company a competitive advantage. Whereas workers in similar plants make $9 to $14 an hour, according to industry reports, IFCO employees in Houston were reportedly making about $6.50 an hour. And immigration authorities said a former IFCO bookkeeper had told them "Mexican workers" were underpaid for overtime.

Last year, IFCO Systems North America generated revenue of $576 million, according to the company, which is part of a Dutch conglomerate.

posted by Steve @ 10:35:00 AM

10:35:00 AM

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