COMMERCE, Ga. - Some Jackson County residents complain the new $2.6 billion battery plant under construction there is starting to wear out its welcome before it even opens.
The FOX 5 I-Team already revealed how contractors are flying in overseas workers rather than using Americans to do some of the basic construction.
Workers from overseas leave a rental home in Commerce. Neighbors say they've counted 14 there at one time.
But it’s where some of those workers are sleeping that has residents troubled.
“These are single family dwellings,” complained Jeff Flowers, a military retiree who lives along Glenn Fuller Circle in Commerce. “And you’re not supposed to have 8, 10, 12, how many they’re putting in these places with them.”
Homeowners complain the SK Battery construction workers stage loud, drunken parties and once drove through their lawn late at night.
When Jeff and his neighbors look out their windows, they see vans loading and unloading a steady supply of strangers at a house in their cul-de-sac.
They are construction workers at SK Battery America, the billion-dollar economic showcase that is expected to eventually create more than 2000 jobs building batteries for electric cars.
That’s the reason state and local governments agreed to $300 million in tax breaks and free land, one of the biggest deals ever offered in Georgia.
But no one thought to require SK Battery make sure Americans had first crack at actually building the plant.
Micronesia is more than 7800 miles from Commerce, GA. An SK Battery America contractor recruited workers from there instead of hiring local laborers. (map courtesy 2020 Google)
When the FOX 5 I-Team watched the site earlier this month, most of the construction workers seemed to be Korean, some of them who share rental homes in neighborhoods all around the plant.
Jackson County ordinances limit the number of unrelated people living in a home to four.
Neighbors on Glenn Fuller Circle say they’ve seen 14 men living in that house along the cul-de-sac. It’s listed as a five-bedroom, 3-bath home.
On a rainy Tuesday afternoon, we counted nine men exiting a work van for the house. They told us only five of them actually live there. The rest, they said, were just dropping by for lunch.
The nine hail from the Federated States of Micronesia, a group of islands whose residents don’t need a visa to work in the United States. They said they signed six-month work contracts starting in July.
We asked one what sort of work they were actually doing at the plant.
“Labor,” he said.
SK Battery America says it encourages contractors to hire locally.
In a written statement, SK Battery America pointed out they have already “created more than 1000 American jobs in the construction phase.”
The company says it “told its contractors from the start to place a priority on hiring local American workers.”
“We believe our contractors are appropriately hiring local workers to carry out the project,” the company wrote.
Micronesia is in the south Pacific, approximately 7800 miles from Commerce.
Neighbors have called the sheriff’s office after one work van drove across someone’s yard, and to complain about drunken parties and loud music.
“I don’t have a problem with people but they need to respect the whole neighborhood,” said Bill Bradberry, another retiree, “not just in and out what they want to do.”
The questionable accommodations for some SK workers isn’t only troubling neighbors in Jackson County. It’s also part of a renewed effort to get Immigration and Customs Enforcement to launch a comprehensive investigation.
When we tried talking to five Korean workers sharing another home, they indicated they did not speak English. The next day, neighbors say those workers moved out and have not returned.
We counted at least five Korean workers living in this Braselton home. None spoke English. The day after our visit, neighbors say the men moved out.
This week, Congressman Doug Collins asked ICE and Customs and Border Protection “to use every resource to investigate SK and their contractors.”
Collins pointed to the “more than 30 houses… rented to support this illegal workforce.”
His letter also mentioned a different situation in neighboring Banks County.
Homeowner Chris Phagan told the FOX 5 I-Team he began noticing a steady stream of work trucks suddenly show up on his quiet, one-lane, dead-end Banks Road, heading for an abandoned chicken farm.
That was in July. The farm is five miles from the SK Battery America construction site.
“When I stopped them to ask what they were doing, they said they were doing training for welding,” Phagan told us. “They said it was supposed to be a secret.”
Two of the more than 100 vehicles Banks County homeowner Chris Phagan recorded driving down his one lane dead end road in Banks County. An inspector reported the operation was to make sure welders were "qualified to do the work."
According to the incident report filed by Banks County code enforcement officer Paul Ruark, a manager on the property said “they had set up testing sites for welders to make sure they were qualified to do the work.”
Rep. Collins wrote ICE that the welding site was another example of “an effort to replace American workers with Korean foreign nationals.”
SK Battery said the company “has found no information yet that such an operation existed…” and “any off-site workshops perform welding for the site, not training programs.”
After Banks County authorities checked on the site, the work ceased.
Hart County resident and labor leader David Cagle insists there are plenty of local workers -- union or non-union -- who can do the construction jobs at the SK Battery plant.
David Cagle is a Hart County resident and representative for Plumbers, Pipefitters & HVACR Technicians Local Union 72.
“They’re set up to work Koreans,” he said. “And they can’t deny it.” Cagle said there are plenty of Americans — union and non-union — who know how to weld.
“It’s not an issue can we man the job,” he explained. “Yes we can man the job. That’s what we do.”
Some of the 33 Koreans turned away at Hartsfield-Jackson in May for allegedly trying to use fake employment letters to get construction jobs at SK Battery. (photo courtesy CBP)
In light of our earlier investigation, SK Battery announced it will now require all workers provide daily documentation proving they are lawfully allowed to work in this country. No documentation, no work.
“No illegal workers are permitted to enter the SKBA’s site,” the company said in a statement.
“If any contractor is in violation of such policy, SKBA will impose severe sanctions, including possible termination of the contractor,” the statement said. “Additionally, SKBA will conduct ongoing inspections to ensure our contractors’ compliance with applicable laws.”
In May, Customs and Border Protection said it stopped 33 Koreans from coming through Hartsfield because they had fake work papers to get jobs at the battery plant.
The contractor was not named.
Rep. Collins is asking Customs “to suspend visas for any SK employee traveling to Georgia from any part of the world” until they can fully investigate the illegal worker issue.
Neither CBP or ICE would comment.
The mega-plant — which is also connected to an International Trade Commission probe — is scheduled to be up and running by 2022.