Washington - Food manufacturing giant ConAgra Inc. agreed on Thursday to pay $223,000 in fines and other costs for knowingly hiring illegal aliens at the company's former poultry plant in Kentucky.
U.S. meat and poultry plants have been employing growing numbers of immigrant workers because of the buoyant American economy. Jobs in meat and poultry plants rank among the most dangerous in the nation.
Federal prosecutors said a former ConAgra plant manager, a former personnel manager, a former payroll manager and a line supervisor were all aware that four of their workers were illegal aliens. The managers pleaded guilty to hiring illegal workers and are awaiting sentencing.
"The Immigration and Naturalization Service will not tolerate employers who flagrantly violate the law by hiring illegal workers," said William Yates, director of the INS eastern region.
ConAgra, which makes Healthy Choice frozen dinners and Wesson oil, is one of the nation's biggest meat processors with its Armour, Country Pride and Butterball brands.
ConAgra sold its Glasgow, Kentucky, poultry plant in 1995, one year after the INS began investigating illegal workers at the plant. The plant is now closed.
"We regret those actions, and have taken steps to ensure that they don't happen again," the company said in a statement. "ConAgra will continue its close working relationship with the INS to ensure lawful hiring activities and a work force of individuals who are legally eligible to work."
As part of a settlement with federal prosecutors, ConAgra agreed to pay a $123,000 administrative fine to the INS plus $100,000 to cover the costs of the investigation.
The illegal aliens, who were being paid $6 to $10 an hour at the plant, were from Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras.
Roy Schremp, the INS agent in charge of the investigation, said the agency had similar probes under way at other plants.
"When you have low rates of unemployment, there are not sufficient numbers of workers who will work at unskilled jobs," he said. "An alien can pretty easily find a job in the $5-to-$8-an-hour range."
A report earlier this month by the investigative arm of Congress said an estimated one out of every four employees at Midwestern meatpacking plants were illegal aliens. Most used false or forged documents to qualify for jobs.
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