Hundreds of workers at Wal-Mart Stores Inc locations across the country were arrested on immigration charges in an investigation into contractor cleaning crews, and some company executives knew about the alleged illegal hirings, US officials said on Thursday.
They said the investigation, known as "Operation Rollback," involved allegations the contractor had recruited illegal immigrants, mainly Eastern European nationals, to work on cleaning crews at stores of Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer.
Two officials initially said about 300 workers had been arrested at 61 stores in 21 states. But the officials later revised the numbers and said about 250 had been arrested at some 60 stores. They said investigators were still pursuing at least 50 workers.
Federal law enforcement officials said some Wal-Mart executives had direct knowledge of the alleged scheme, based on recorded conversations, surveillance and monitoring.
One official said federal agents conducted searches at the Bentonville, Arkansas, headquarters of Wal-Mart, the largest US private sector employer, with about 1.1 million workers in the US and 1.4 million worldwide.
Another official said federal grand jury subpoenas have been issued for the Wal-Mart executives to testify. The executives were not identified.
An official said the US investigators believe Wal-Mart has shown a "reckless disregard" for US immigration laws, exploiting workers, and has continued to hire some contractors who were already convicted of felony violations.
A Wal-Mart spokesman said the company was "committed to cooperating" with federal officials, who he said came to company headquarters with specific requests for information.
"These are third-party contractors," spokesman Tom Williams said. "We require that the contractors use legal workers."
"We don't know at this point if the current investigation includes one or more outside contractors. We use hundreds of them," he said.
He added that about 1,000 of Wal-Mart's US stores have outside cleaning services.
Wal-Mart already faces dozens of lawsuits alleging discrimination and violations of wage-and-hour rules.
The company has drawn fire from labor groups, who say the company has an anti-union stance.
Garrison Courtney, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security's Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said the arrests were part of a "worksite enforcement" effort.
"If a company knowingly hires illegal workers it can be penalized up to US$10,000 per person," he said.
The latest arrests stemmed from two prior investigations by federal immigration officials involving contractors and Wal-Mart stores, one in 1998 and the other in 2001, the officials said.
One official said the cleaning contractor at issue in the latest investigation was owned by two Illinois men and a Missouri man.
The company, which was not identified, allegedly hired illegal aliens, who had been recruited in the US and in Europe, the official said.
Kurt Barnard, head of the consulting firm Retail Forecasting Group, said, "This is going to be a major public relations problem, with lots of tongues wagging about it."
Still, he said the news would probably have little effect on Wal-Mart's sales or profits because the company's low prices will continue to attract shoppers by the millions.
Wal-Mart estimates more than 100 million Americans visit their stores every week.
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