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Inside New Bedford Factory

Across the country, May Day immigration marches and rallies drew tens of thousands of people to the streets. In Boston, advocates for immigrants in Massachusetts marched on The Common, calling for an end to workplace raids and detention proceedings until the government comes up with legislative reform.

Some of the workers detained in the March raid on a New Bedford factory jioned in the Boston march. The majority of the detainees still face deportation. Meantime, the factory where they worked, Michael Bianco Incorporated, is still hiring to replace its 361 employees taken in the immigration raid. Also, the owner and three managers await federal indictment, allegedly for hiring undocumented immigrants. WBUR's Bianca Vazquez Toness recently toured the factory and has this report from the inside.

The audio for this story will be available on WBUR's web site after 10 a.m. on Wednesday.

STEVEN MADEIROS: Oh, I'm just cutting out the materials and the dyes....

TONESS: Steven Madeiros was one of hundreds of people who rushed the factory immediately after the raid looking for work here. He's from New Bedford, which has one of the highest unemployment rates in the state. Before now, he could only find work in Boston.

TONESS: (To Madeiros) Can I ask you how much you make?

MADEIROS: I make $9 right now, whichs is ok since i don't have that much experience. I'm still learning....

[Sound of loud sewing machine and scissors cutting thread]

Pablo Lopez is a stitcher. he's worked here for 16 years, starting at $5 an hour when the company still made leather goods. Now he sews military backpacks and vests for $15 an hour.

LOPEZ: Para mi la situacion siempre ha sido buena. Mucha gente decia que no habia califaccion. Pero hay califaccion. Tenemos de todo. No se porque la gente dijeron estas cosas...

TONESS: For him, he says, working conditions have always been good. A lot of people said there wasn't heat in the building, but there was heat, we have everything. He doesn't know why they said those things.

Lopez said that since the raid, a lot of new workers have come and gone.

LOPEZ: Tal vez no le parece la paga...or no quieren trabajar.

TONESS: Maybe they didn't like the pay, he says,. or they didn't like to work.

TONESS: Company spokesman Doug Bailey says there's been high turnover since the raid. About 25 new hires have already quit. While they've hired some U.S.-born staff, many of the new employees are immigrants. Bailey says they are all working legally.

DOUG BAILEY: There are lot of things we could do to get non-immigrants in here...like raise wages exhorbitantly. But of course we wouldn't get any contracts and there wouldn't be any work.

TONESS: Michael Bianco, Incoporporated won more than $200 million in federal contracts.The defense department suspended future deals after immigration and justice officials raided the factory, detained workers, and arrested the owner and three managers on charges of hiring people illegally in this country. That same day at a Boston press conference, government officials described the factory as a "sweatshop from the early 1900s."

BAILEY: There was this undercurrent that conditions here were bad and that somehow the government was using what they called deplorable conditions as justification, extra justification for what they did. In other words they had a moral imperative to save these people from the terrible conditions that existed here.

TONESS: After the raid, the U.S. Department of Labor sent inspectors to the factory and found no violations of safety or wage and hour standards, but their investigation is still open.

[Loud buzz signaling a work break]

TONESS: Workers here get two fifteen minute breaks a day along with half an hour for lunch.

Grace Mello and the women in her area stop sewing and stand up to stretch their legs.

GRACE MELLO: The boss says he's confident the place will remain open but it depends on us and how much we put out. I'm happy where i am. He's been a very wonderful boss. He doesn't slave us. He's not on top of us. He's not.

TONESS: Spokesman Bailey says the existing defense contracts should sustain the company into the beginning of next year. And it's too soon to say if there's a way win new contracts, or what will happen if the owner is convicted.

In the meantime, the company joined a new federal program to verify applicants' Social Security Numbers.

This program aired on May 2, 2007. The audio for this program is not available.

Bianca Vázquez Toness Twitter Reporter
Bianca Vázquez Toness was formerly a report for WBUR.

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