Protesters call Holtec CEO’s comments on Camden workers ‘racist’

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Camden students march outside Holtec International, protesting remarks made by the company's CEO Krishna Singh that residents of the city don't know how to work. The company received $260 million in tax breaks to build its manufacturing plant in Camden. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Camden students march outside Holtec International, protesting remarks made by the company's CEO Krishna Singh that residents of the city don't know how to work. The company received $260 million in tax breaks to build its manufacturing plant in Camden. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

About 50 protesters rallied outside Holtec International in Camden Friday in response to controversial remarks made by the CEO about the work ethic of city residents.

“I want you to know that we would have had a lot more Camden residents here today,” joked community activist Amir Khan. “But they’re at work.”

The group was angry about comments in a story published on the website ROI-NJ this week, in which Kris Singh said he was having trouble retaining employees from Camden because the impoverished South Jersey city lacks a culture of work.

“They don’t show up to work,” Singh said of Camden workers. “They can’t stand getting up in the morning and coming to work every single day. They haven’t done it, and they didn’t see their parents do it. Of course, some of them get into drugs and things. So, it’s difficult.”

Khan said the comments smacked of racial bias. “It’s a spirit of racism. And it’s creeping here throughout the city of Camden. It’s creeping throughout this whole country.”

Singh has since backpedaled, apologizing for offending people and claiming his comments were taken out of context without explaining how.

“My complete comments were not reported, but even if they were, I was perhaps not as articulate as I could have been while I was discussing my deep commitment to the city of Camden and its residents,” he said in a statement.

Singh added that Holtec was considering opening its next plant, which will produce energy storage systems, in Camden. “We are extremely proud to be part of Camden’s renaissance,” he said.

Holtec CEO Krishna Singh speaks during a ceremony at the company’s Camden plant in 2016. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The CEO’s comments were also met with swift opposition from city leaders, who held their own press conference Friday at Camden City Hall, criticizing what they characterized as an attack on city residents.

“This is a warning to anyone that wishes to diss my city,” said Camden Mayor Frank Moran. “We will not tolerate anyone speaking down to my city.”

Protesters also blasted U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross, whom they claimed compared Camden workers to children in the same ROI-NJ story.

“When you stop to think about it, I say children are that one asset that you can’t blame them for anything,” the Democrat told ROI-NJ. “Same thing goes for people who have not had a structure that taught them.”

Yet at the City Hall press conference, Moran and a half dozen other local leaders vouched for Norcross’ character and praised the work he has done in Camden, where he lives. The two-term congressman also announced that he would be organizing a summit on jobs and career training in Camden next week.

Camden Mayor Frank Moran issues a statement slamming remarks made by Holtec CEO Krishna Singh, but expresses his willingness to keep working with the company to provide jobs for Camden residents. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Holtec was once seen as a hero in the struggling city. In 2014, the company received a $260 million tax break through the state’s Grow NJ program, which offers tax incentives to businesses that build facilities and create jobs in New Jersey.

The incentive given to Holtec was one of the largest tax breaks New Jersey has ever awarded.

In return, Holtec was required to build a factory, move 160 current employees from Marlton to Camden, and create 250 new jobs.

Although the company vowed to hire Camden residents for the new positions in its factory, the state did not mandate that any of the new hires live in the city.

Local activists were immediately skeptical that Holtec would employ Camden residents despite repeated public promises by company officials.

“The only people I see working there are suburbanites,” Kelly Francis, a Camden resident and the former president of the local chapter of the NAACP, said at the time. “But these are the promises they make in order to get a foothold.”

A 2016 survey by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia noted that while Camden had a large population of low-skilled workers, many of the state tax breaks were going to companies in Camden that needed skilled employees, such as Holtec. “This lack of alignment with available workforce will leave few parcels of land available for the development of firms with entry level, low-skilled labor jobs,” the report said.

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