news/US: Living conditions probed Illegal housing of workers alleged

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Subject: news/US: Living conditions probed Illegal housing of workers alleged
From: Melanie Orhant (morhant@igc.org)
Date: Sun Oct 03 1999 - 09:33:17 EDT


Living conditions probed
Illegal housing of workers alleged
By Calvin R. Trice
Richmond Times-Dispatch, September 27, 1999

WAYNESBORO -- Police are investigating a local factory authorities say
illegally housed immigrant workers inside an area of its plant where sewer
gases rise from an open waste hole and where inadequate fire safety
precautions exist.

The Waynesboro Police Department is looking into the living conditions for
eight Mexican nationals working with temporary visas for Augusta Lumber Co.
All were properly documented, said Police Chief Philip Broadfoot.

The local building inspector ordered the company to cease the lodging
arrangement soon after Waynesboro investigators entered the plant Sept. 15
on a search warrant and found the workers, the police chief said.

No charges have been filed. Police have not been able to talk to plant
owner Mitchell Carr.

"His wife said he was on vacation in Europe when we contacted her the day
of the search," Broadfoot said last week.

Augusta Lumber officials would not speak directly about the investigation
last week, but they asserted in a release reported in Staunton and
Waynesboro newspapers two weeks ago that the company temporarily allowed
six employees to serve as night watchmen. The arrangement was a response to
several petty thefts and vandalism that had occurred recently on the
property, according to the release.

The plant, which manufactures wood floors, is zoned for heavy industry,
prohibiting, for the most part, residential use of the property. There are
exceptions for people employed as watchmen or custodians, but Broadfoot
said those exceptions come with safety and sanitation requirements.

They resided in an area converted from office space. Bathrooms from the
space were converted into showers from which water spilled into an open
sewage drain where a toilet had been, the police chief said. No plumbing
permit was obtained for the rearrangement, Broadfoot said.

There was no fire wall to separate the living space from the manufacturing
area, where large stores of highly combustible lumber sat, the chief said.
The space had no smoke alarms and lacked enough windows for the workers to
escape if fire broke out, he said.

"That's a significant health and safety concern," Broadfoot said. "The
company has a history of fire calls."

The workers told police they worked 50-60 hours per week at $6.90 per hour.
Augusta Lumber deducted $30 per week from their pay for rent, Broadfoot
said, adding that the company confirmed those terms.

Mary Bauer, the former legal director for the American Civil Liberties
Union, left that organization last year to set up the Virginia Justice
Center for Immigrant and Farm Workers. The justice center, based in
Charlottesville, represents workers who report abuses.

"It's very typical of how migrant and contract workers are treated" if the
allegations are true, said Bauer, adding that her organization will look
into the matter. "They often don't speak English; they're hidden away from
society, and for all they know, it's perfectly legal for them to be housed
in a factory."

Employers aren't supposed to dock the pay of temporary immigrant workers if
the resulting money is beneath the contract amount for which they were
hired to work, Bauer said.

Waynesboro police began a surveillance at the factory after the city
fielded several anonymous complaints starting in the end of July about the
workers' living arrangement, Broadfoot said.

Police observed the plant several times before obtaining a warrant to
search the premises, the chief said.

A business found in violation of city zoning laws could be fined up to
$250, and more, if problems aren't rectified.

Last October, Augusta Lumber faced a different kind of scrutiny of its
workers: The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service detained 72
immigrants who worked at the company's Waynesboro and Staunton-area plants
as "undocumented aliens" in one of the largest roundups in the state in
recent memory. Some of the workers were found to be legal and released,
about 25 of them volunteered to return to their native Mexico, and others
faced deportation hearings, according to INS officials. Carr said at the
time that his company was not aware of problems with the employees' status.

Melanie Orhant
morhant@igc.org
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