9 Mexican immigrants sue Wal-Mart over job practices

Cleaning contractors, chain accused of bias

November 06, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Nine Mexican immigrants who worked as janitors at Wal-Marts in New Jersey sued the company yesterday, accusing Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and its cleaning contractors of failing to pay overtime, withhold taxes and make required workers' compensation contributions.

The plaintiffs, who face deportation for being illegal immigrants, also accuse Wal-Mart and its contractors of discriminating against them by giving them lower wages and fewer benefits than other workers because of their national origin. The nine plaintiffs were among 250 people arrested for being illegal immigrants in an Oct. 23 federal raid on 60 Wal-Marts in 21 states.

The lawsuit, the first filed by immigrants arrested in the raid, said Wal-Mart should be held accountable for its contractors' wage and hour violations.

The lawsuit said, "Wal-Mart, knowingly and with the intention to defraud the United States Government and the plaintiffs and in order to save money on cleaning service contract contractors," employed certain cleaning contractors, "with full knowledge" that these contractors would pay the illegal immigrants far less than they would have paid legal workers.

"Wal-Mart must have known about these violations," said Gilberto Garcia, the immigrants' lawyer, who filed the lawsuit in Monmouth County Superior Court in Freehold, N.J. "If these people are going to work at Wal-Marts, then Wal-Mart and its contractors should abide by the labor laws, just like every other employer has to."

Mona Williams, Wal-Mart's vice president for communications, said yesterday that Wal-Mart did not know that its contractors and subcontractors used illegal immigrants. She also said Wal-Mart did not know about the overtime and other labor violations that the cleaning contractors are accused of committing.

"Clearly, hungry lawyers are converging on these illegal immigrants as if they were accident victims," Williams said. "We have seen absolutely no evidence showing that Wal-Mart did anything wrong."

Williams acknowledged Tuesday that federal prosecutors had sent Wal-Mart a target letter warning that the Arkansas-based retailer faced a grand jury investigation about illegal immigrants employed in its stores.

Williams said Wal-Mart was not liable for the misdeeds alleged against its contractors, noting that Wal-Mart has long insisted that its contractors obey the law and employ only legal workers.

"If you are scrambling to make a buck at someone else's expense, who would you sue, an unknown cleaning contractor or the country's largest corporation?" she said.

The lawsuit says managers at two Wal-Marts where the nine plaintiffs worked, in Old Bridge and Piscataway, N.J., knew the workers were illegal immigrants. The suit says Kenneth Clancy, owner of Facility Solutions and related cleaning companies, hired the nine immigrants and violated overtime, discrimination and other laws.

A receptionist at the Facility Solutions office said yesterday that Clancy was unavailable for comment. His office did not respond to an e-mail about the lawsuit.

The nine immigrants said they were paid $350 to $500 a week for working eight or nine hours a night, every night of the week.

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