Calls for ICE to investigate who's building Korean battery plant in Jackson County

The company promised 2,600 jobs once its factory was up and running.

But no one made sure that at least some of the people actually building the plant be from Georgia.

Each morning vans drop off Korean construction workers at the SK Battery America plant in Jackson County.

A FOX 5 I-Team investigation has raised questions over who’s currently benefiting from a $2.6 billion factory under construction in Jackson County.

Korean-owned SK Innovation chose Georgia after receiving one of the biggest tax relief packages our state has ever awarded: around $300 million in tax abatements and grants.

SK Battery America is building what will eventually be a $2.6 billion factory that will employ 2600 workers.

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Jackson County donated the land for the plant. SK Battery America is a subsidiary of SKI.

When it’s finished in 2022, SK Battery America promised 2,600 people will eventually be hired to build batteries for electric cars.

But that’s when it’s finished.

“Georgians have gotten the shaft over the SKI battery plant,” complained David Cagle with the Georgia Local Union 72 of plumbers, pipefitters, and HVACR technicians.

Cagle said when his people tried applying for the construction jobs to build the plant itself, they were told nothing was available.

“We’ve got about 500 people out of work right now who could come up here and be on this job and making a living,” he said. “Instead, the Koreans are making a living.”

David Cagle works for local Union 72. He says it's been difficult for both union and non-union pipefitters, plumbers, electricians or HVAC workers to get jobs at SK Battery.

On multiple visits to the job site, we saw what bothered Cagle. Korean labor was everywhere.

We asked Cagle whether it’s possible SK Battery America needed Koreans to build something specific at the plant.

“No,” he answered. “I’m not going to sit here and say they don’t have a piece of equipment they have a patent on or propriety information that they need to bring their people. But the electrical work, the ductwork, the pipework, the pipe fitting, the pipe welding. It’s all generic stuff.”

That’s important. The only legal way to bring in a foreign construction worker is with a special visa. Basically, that says no American can do the job or no American wants the job. 

Plenty want these jobs.

In May, Customs and Border Protection says it caught 33 Koreans trying to sneak into the country with fraudulent employment letters to work at a battery factory under construction. The letters claimed they had a "specific skill set for specialized wo

Concern boiled over in May when Customs and Border Protection announced 33 Koreans were caught at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport trying to sneak into the country “for the sole purpose of working illegally at a construction company and battery plant in Georgia.”

An SK Battery America spokesman confirmed that the plant was theirs but pointed out they don’t do the construction hiring.

“SK Battery America requires all contractors to ensure their workers at the site meet proper state and federal regulations,” the company explained in a statement. “After becoming aware of the issue in June … (we) reiterated with (our) contractors that these guidelines must be followed and we are cooperating with authorities to provide our support in resolving any issues.”

SK Battery America said more than 1,000 Americans have been hired since construction began in 2019.

Georgia congressman Doug Collins wrote this letter urging ICE to determine "whether and to what extent there are foreign workers illegally employed" at the battery plant.

Even though he says he still supports SKI, Congressman Doug Collins wrote a letter asking Immigration and Customs Enforcement to fully investigate the complaints raised by Cagle. The union rep lives in Collins’ district.

“It is my understanding that CBP determined that this was not an isolated incident,” Collins wrote. “And that these Korean nationals were part of a larger scheme to illegally bring foreign workers into the United States.”

Customs said the Koreans caught at Hartsfield were using “fraudulent employment papers.” They were immediately sent home.

“This isn’t a matter of whether you’re a good company or a bad company,” Collins told the FOX 5 I-Team. “This is a matter are you following the rules that apply to workers in our country?”

Could all those Koreans already on the job actually be Americans? We watched the job site. Many got bused to and from work.

We saw Korean construction workers sharing houses in various neighborhoods surrounding SK Battery.

Some shared various rental homes in a Braselton neighborhood under construction, piling out of vans at the end of the workday still wearing their reflective work vests.

In similar neighborhoods in Pendergrass and Jefferson, local union leaders recorded video of multiple Korean workers living in the same house.

We found five Korean men sharing one house in Braselton. When we tried to ask them whether they were American or had a visa to work at the plant, none said they spoke English.

The day after our visit, neighbors say all five men quickly moved out.

We tried asking these SK Battery construction workers if they were American or had a work visa. None appeared to speak English. The day after our visit, neighbors say the men moved out of the house.

“I’m upset because Georgia gave them a huge break,” Cagle complained. “This isn’t a union-non-union issue. This is a Georgia issue. About what’s right for Georgia and Georgians getting treated right. And it’s a shame.”

And it’s still under construction. The next phase — and another 430,000 square feet of space — is due to start later this year.

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