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EU Divided Over Illegal Worker Crackdown

Nations made little progress on a plan to introduce a Europe-wide crackdown on illegal workers and on employers that hire them or abuse their rights.

BRUSSELS, Belgium (AP) -- European Union nations made little progress Thursday on a plan to introduce a Europe-wide crackdown on illegal workers and on employers that hire them or abuse their rights.

Germany, Sweden and Poland led a group of seven EU nations critical of the proposal at talks by justice and interior ministers here that debated the issue.

They all argued the plan would do little to bolster national efforts to hunt down human trafficking and mobs that bring in highly prized cheap labor into the 27-nation bloc.

The rules, if approved in the coming months, also could spell the end of cheap labor for farmers, or individuals who illegally employ seasonal workers, nannies or cleaners, without paying taxes or social security charges on their wages.

Justice Minister Tobias Billstroem of Sweden said the EU as an organization did not have the power to recommend criminal penalties and should leave it up to member states to decide how best to deter the exploitation of illegal workers and Europe's vast shadow economy.

Plans are under way to introduce an EU law that would set standard minimum criminal penalties such as jail time or fines against employers that hire illegals. The plan also calls for countries to carry out a minimum number of inspections and checks at job sites, a quota France, as EU president, is pushing hard for.

"If we are to combat this phenomenon effectively, it will not just depend on sanctions, it will depend on people's political will to implement those sanctions in practice," said Brice Hortefeux, France's immigration minister who chaired the talks.

Hortefeux said at least 5 percent of national job sites and business should face inspections every year.

German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said it was better to carry out random spot checks and raids rather than pricier across-the-board inspections.

"We are convinced that introducing a quota may include the possibility of carrying out controls just for the sake of meeting the quota," Schaeuble said.

European nations are struggling with the arrival of up to half a million illegal immigrants a year, brought in by human trafficking rings run by organized crime.

The European Commission estimates that the number of illegal immigrants in the 27-nation EU stands at between 4.5 million and 8 million, and says that between 7 and 16 percent of the EU's gross domestic product comes from the shadow economy.

Currently, lax rules in many EU nations have drawn in cheap illegal labor for manual jobs in the construction, farm and service economy that many Europeans do not want. They often result in slave-like conditions for the workers EU officials have said.

EU officials have suggested fines levied on employers that hire illegals could include the costs of returning the immigrants to their home country and repaying outstanding wages, taxes and social security contributions. They also suggested companies that employ illegals should be cut from EU funding for businesses that work on public contracts.

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