Critics of what will be Georgia’s largest-ever foreign investment project are pointing to the arrest of 13 Korean nationals Thursday as proof that SK Battery has been skirting immigration laws during the construction of its $2.6 billion complex in Commerce.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement made the arrests Wednesday at a home where the workers were staying together in nearby Pendergrass, Ga., local Korean media reported.
They were released “on supervision” and will voluntarily return to Korea before their electronic travel authorization expires, a source at the Consulate General of Korea told Global Atlanta.
It’s unclear whether the workers in question entered the U.S. after after SK installed daily document checks at the site’s entrance and threatened stricter penalties for contractors violating immigration rules.
SK has said it isn’t responsible for hiring workers directly and noted that 1,000 Americans have worked on the site during the construction phase.
“SK Battery America continues to fully cooperate with U.S. authorities in addressing any issues about worker status at the site. SKBA has told its contractors from the start to place a priority on hiring local American workers and has repeatedly reinforced this priority,” company spokesman Joe Guy Collier said in a statement.
But Rep. Doug Collins, R–Gainesville, has alleged widespread use of “imported” Korean labor at the site, encouraging ICE in August to investigate the issue after hearing that a defunct chicken farm was being used to train groups of Korean welders just five miles away from the SK plant.
Mr. Collins’ interest in the issue was sparked after U.S. Customs and Border Protection in May blocked 33 Koreans from entering the country through the Atlanta airport on the Visa Waiver Program, which prohibits entry for the purpose of general labor.
The program does have some gray zones, however, carving out limited exceptions for those traveling for certain business purposes or installing technical equipment purchased outside the U.S.
Mr. Collins said SK’s practices amount to a “betrayal” of the state’s taxpayers.
“These arrests confirm what we suspected all along: for months, SK and their contractors have been engaged in an ongoing scheme to illegally employ Korean foreign nationals at their facility in Northeast Georgia,” Mr. Collins said in a statement. “These jobs were promised to hardworking Georgians, and SK’s illegal and immoral actions have been nothing but a betrayal to Georgia taxpayers who have invested heavily in SK’s development in our state.”
SK is set to receive about $300.3 million in incentives over the next two decades, but not until construction is complete and 2,000 permanent jobs are created. Jackson County retains the title for at least 20 years.
ICE confirmed the arrests but would not provide further comment, citing the ongoing investigation.
It couldn’t be immediately confirmed that the Korean nationals in question had worked directly on the SK site. They will be required to notify ICE of their departure from the U.S., which Korean consulate officials said would take place before the expiration date of their Electronic System for Travel Authorization approval. ESTA is an online registration foreign travelers from visa-waiver countries must complete before boarding a plane for the U.S.
Expanding the Permanent Workforce
The news of the arrests came as SK touted the expansion of its permanent local workforce as the first of its two massive facilities on the site nears completion. Together, they will have the capacity to power 300,000 electric vehicles.
SK recently passed the 60-employee mark, with supervisor, process/electrical engineering and quality/logistics roles already filled.
That number will grow to 150 by the end of this year, as SK partners with Georgia Quick Start and Lanier Technical College to begin training technical and engineering talent at the state-of-the-art lithium-ion battery plant.
As mass production begins toward the close of 2021, the company expects to have hired more than 1,000 local workers on the site. A minimal Korean expatriate presence is likely to be limited to certain executives and technical experts, as is the case with most foreign subsidiaries.
Commerce Mayor Clark Hill said in a news release the “transformational project” will “establish Commerce as a center of innovation in a fast-growing part of the economy,” while Georgia Department of Economic Development Commissioner Pat Wilson said the project will “put Georgia in the driver’s seat for the next era of the auto industry and ensure our economy keeps growing at a time when we need jobs most.”
The department has told Global Atlanta that it expects companies to follow all immigration regulations and that projects that have experienced such hiccups in the past have turned out to be overwhelmingly positive for the state.
SK is sticking to an aggressive production timetable, despite a pending investigation into whether it stole the trade secrets of fellow Korean rival LG Chem. The International Trade Commission is expected to make a final determination in that case next month, which could slow or block the importation of some SK products.
SK plans to create 2,600 Georgia jobs by 2024. To fulfill its initial investment pledge and qualify for package of land, training and tax incentives, the company must hire at least 2,000.