BURLINGTON, Iowa (AP) - A federal lawsuit accuses IBP Inc. of using an underground network of recruiters to bring illegal immigrants into the United States to work in its beef packing plant in Joslin, Ill.

The lawsuit says the practice violates racketeering laws and keeps wages at unnaturally low levels.

The class-action lawsuit, filed earlier this month in Rock Island, Ill., on behalf of IBP's legal workers, seeks three times the difference in IBP wages compared to industry standards. No hearing date has been set.

IBP officials deny any such network exists.

"We are extremely offended by the accusations made in this lawsuit," a company statement said. "The plaintiffs are trying to paint a picture of our company that is unfair and grossly inaccurate."

The lawsuit alleges IBP uses recruiters who smuggle illegal immigrants into the country, set them up with phony documents and provide them with places to live.

"The references in the lawsuit are flat out inaccurate. We don't want to employ anybody in this country without proper authorization," said company spokesman Gary Mickelson.

According to the lawsuit, the recruiters, who are paid $200 to $500 for each worker, are told to look for people who are "vulnerable, submissive, have little knowledge of the U.S. legal system and a pressing need for immediate employment."

In return, the lawsuit says, the company gets an employee who will work long hours in poor conditions for as little as $7 an hour, while other meatpacking plants start their unskilled workers at $13 an hour.

"Owing to their constant fear of apprehension by law enforcement authorities, IBP's illegal immigrant workers tolerate deplorable workplace conditions and do not file workers' compensation claims when they are injured on the job," the lawsuit says.

Attorney Howard W. Foster said he's not ready to say the company uses illegal workers at every plant, but he is ready to expand the lawsuit if additional information proves a link between other IBP facilities and the underground network he claims is sending workers to the Illinois plant.

"If that's what the evidence indicates, that's what will happen," he said.

Mickelson said workers at IBP's Joslin plant are represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which signed a new five-year contract just last year.

"Our starting rate at Joslin is $9 an hour," Mickelson said. "With pay acceleration benefits available to our members, our pay rates are very competitive."

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As for hiring, Mickelson said, "We prefer to hire as many people locally as possible."

He said there have been occasions when the company recruits outside the state and, "on occasion, we do recruit in Mexico, where there are people who have authorization to work in the United States," he said.

Documentation of new workers is painstakingly checked, Mickelson said.

"Our company uses all available tools provided by the federal government to verify the eligibility of our team members," he said.

A 1997 raid at the Joslin, Ill., plant by the Immigration and Naturalization Service turned up 100 illegal immigrants. Sweeps at IBP plants in Waterloo and Storm Lake also have turned up undocumented workers.

Louisa County Sheriff Curt Braby said he has noticed a bigger problem with illegal immigrants since the Columbus Junction plant was built in 1985.

"It's definitely here, but whether it is recruiting or just illegals finding a job, I don't know," he said.

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