U.S. News

Workers sue U.S. factory after immigration raid

BOSTON (Reuters) - Workers including 361 illegal immigrants were cheated of hundreds of thousands of dollars in overtime pay at a factory at the center of a high-profile raid in Massachusetts, according to a lawsuit filed on Tuesday.

The class-action lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Boston on behalf of 500 workers, follows a raid by federal immigration agents on March 6 that drew criticism of the Bush administration’s immigration policy and brought national attention to the perils facing undocumented workers.

Dozens of children were stranded when 361 workers at Michael Bianco Inc., which makes equipment and apparel for the U.S. military, were arrested by federal agents in New Bedford, a port city about 55 miles south of Boston.

Many of the immigrants were initially held at a decommissioned Army base in Massachusetts before being flown to Texas.

The case, separate to a lawsuit filed in March by the arrested immigrants against the U.S. government, accuses Michael Bianco Inc. of setting up a fictional company, Front Line Defense, to pay employees who had worked overtime.

It said the company channeled payroll through Front Line to avoid a federal law requiring workers be paid time and a half for overtime.

“In a lot of ways, what they did unfortunately is not out of the ordinary. The practices are very common in a wide range of workplaces, especially those that use predominantly immigrant workers,” said Audrey Richardson, an attorney with Greater Boston Legal Services, which represents the workers.

“It’s really only the tip of the iceberg,” she said.

The New Bedford factory had won millions of dollars in contracts from the U.S. Defense Department in recent years and officials said it came to rely on illegal workers to meet rapidly growing demand for its products.

According to the 15-page complaint filed on Tuesday, the company also deprived workers of wages by enforcing a tardiness policy that routinely deducted 15 or 30 minutes of pay when workers clocked in as little as one minute late.

The pay was deducted, the lawsuit said, even when the late clock-in was due to long lines because of an inadequate number of time clocks. The company also failed to compensate workers for time spent in lines waiting to clock out, the suit said.

Doug Baily, spokesman for Michael Bianco, said the allegations are the same as those filed by the government when the factory was raided. “As they are subject of an ongoing federal investigation we are reserving comment,” he said.

In a separate lawsuit filed in March, the immigrants detained in the raid accused the government of acting in bad faith by rapidly moving them to detention centers in Texas and denying them adequate access to lawyers.

The New Bedford factory raid, the largest of its kind in New England, came as the U.S. government tries to reform its immigration laws and crack down on people who enter the country illegally and those who employ them.

The aggressive nature of the raid, and the speed with which federal officials moved more than half the workers 2,400 miles

away to Texas detention facilities, drew criticism both in the United States and in Latin America.