Thar She Blows: Humanitarian Concerns in New Bedford Raids

March 7th, 2007 by

When the Department of Defense completed its elaborate procurement process for military vests and backpacks, they selected Michael Bianco, Inc. of New Bedford MA. It’s pretty safe to assume that Bianco was the low bidder. They certainly should have been. After all, most of their workforce was comprised of illegal immigrants. Fearing exposure, the workers tolerated sweatshop conditions. Bianco’s low bid was made possible by its severely deflated labor costs.
Yesterday, the plant was raided by immigration officers and police, who rounded up 350 workers (70 per cent of the total workforce). The scene was chaotic: police guarded exits while other officers grabbed fleeing workers and shouted at them to lie on the ground. Several officers drew handguns. Workers trying to exit the building were confronted with bone chilling temperatures…and more police.
Francesco Insolia, the owner of Bianco, was also arrested, along with three of his managers. They also busted Luis Torres, who worked in a music store across the street from the factory and apparently provided fake IDs to some of the workers.
Today we read that as many as 100 children were left stranded after their parents were caught in the round up. One local official calls it an “humanitarian crisis.”
Victimized Victims
Affidavits allege that Insolia preferred to hire illegal immigrants because they were desperate for jobs and willing to put up with atrocious working conditions. He even helped them secure forged identity papers, referring them to vendors who would produce the documents for about $120. As for the working conditions, workers were routinely denied overtime pay, docked 15 minutes for every minute late and fined for talking on the job or spending more than two minutes in the plant’s “squalid” rest rooms. Sure, but at least the vests and backpacks were made in America!
Ironically, the 11 month investigation began with a tip from a disgruntled employee, who was angry that the company had told workers they could leave the building when an immigration raid was taking place at a nearby factory. Hiring illegal workers was clearly a core element of Bianco’s business strategy.
The sporadic raids that round up illegal immigrants are not a serious attempt to tackle the problem. As we’ve pointed out in previous blogs, with approximately 12 million undocumented workers in the country, 350 workers in New Bedford doesn’t even qualify as a drop in the bucket. The raids offer nothing more than symbolism: at last we are “doing something” about the problem.
It is ironic, of course, that poor working conditions become part of the story. Sub-standard conditions? What a shock! We are so concerned about these poor, exploited workers, we’re going to arrest them in one terrifying swoop, clap on the cuffs and, eventually, deport them.
These raids are not motived by humanitarian concerns. This is the politics of immigration, pure and simple. Of course the working conditions are poor. Of course the wages are illegally low. That’s the whole point of illegal workers: they are cheaper than home-grown American labor.
New Bedford’s Whaling Industry
While processing the undocumented workers, I hope the immigration officials take a few moments to visit New Bedford’s lovely whaling museum, operated as a government service. The exhibits are quite compelling. I remember in particular the replica of a whaling boat, where youngsters could squeeze themselves into the tiny spaces allotted to the crew for sleeping. The quarters were located right below the area where barrels of whale oil were stored, so sleeping sailors were often awakened by oil leaking on their heads. Yuk! Intolerable working conditions from another generation altogether. It’s a good thing that those days of exploited labor are so far behind us, isn’t it?