IBP denies recruiting illegal labor

Thursday, March 28, 2002

Company 'offended' by lawsuit brought by legal workers.

IBP Inc. strongly denies using an underground network of recruiters to bring illegal immigrants to work at its meat packing plants. The company is answering the allegations against its hiring methods at its beef packing plant in Joslin, Ill. Last week a federal, class-action lawsuit was filed against IBP.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of legal workers, claims the recruitment of illegal workers violates racketeering laws and keeps wages unnaturally.

IBP officials deny any such network exists.

"We are extremely offended by the accusations made in this lawsuit," a company statement said. "The plaintiffs are trying to paint a picture of our company that is unfair and grossly inaccurate."

The lawsuit alleges IBP uses recruiters who smuggle illegal immigrants into the country, set them up with phony documents and provide them places to live.

"The references in the lawsuit are flat out inaccurate. We don't want to employ anybody in this country without proper authorization," said company spokesman Gary Mickelson.

Undocumented workers have been found at IBP plants, including during a 1997 raid at the Joslin, Ill., plant by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, as well as sweeps at IBP plants in Waterloo and Storm Lake in 1996.

Approximately 80 people were detained and deported in the May 1996 sweep at the Storm Lake facility.

However, the INS has changed its practices in the meantime. When conducting an employment check in October of 2000, no IBP employees were deported. Rather INS officers reviewed work documents with discrepancies with the workers. Fewer than 80 were questioned at that time and none were deported.

A new INS policy has INS officials working in conjunction with IBP to identify international workers with discrepancies in their work documents. Under the new policy, employees with discrepancies have interviews with INS officials and are given an opportunity to work out any discrepancies.

According to the lawsuit, the recruiters, who are paid $200 to $500 for each worker, are told to look for people who are "vulnerable, submissive, have little knowledge of the U.S. legal system and a pressing need for immediate employment."

In return, the lawsuit says, the company gets an employee who will work long hours in poor conditions for as little as $7 an hour, while other meatpacking plants start their unskilled workers at $13 an hour.

"Owing to their constant fear of apprehension by law enforcement authorities, IBP's illegal immigrant workers tolerate deplorable workplace conditions and do not file workers' compensation claims when they are injured on the job," the lawsuit says.

Attorney Howard W. Foster said he's not ready to say the company uses illegal workers at every plant, but he is ready to expand the lawsuit if additional information proves a link between other IBP facilities and the underground network he claims is sending workers to the Illinois plant.

"If that's what the evidence indicates, that's what will happen," he said.

Mickelson said workers at IBP's Joslin plant are represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which signed a new five-year contract just last year.

"Our starting rate at Joslin is $9 an hour," Mickelson said. "With pay acceleration benefits available to our members, our pay rates are very competitive."

The starting rate is similar in Storm Lake.

As for hiring, Mickelson said, "We prefer to hire as many people locally as possible."

He said there have been occasions when the company recruits outside the state and, "on occasion, we do recruit in Mexico, where there are people who have authorization to work in the United States," he said.

Documentation of new workers is painstakingly checked, Mickelson said.

"Our company uses all available tools provided by the federal government to verify the eligibility of our team members," he said.

With reports from the Associated Press.

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