Common Dreams: Wage Theft Scandal Discovered in Syracuse and Blows Open the Doors to the Issue Nationwide

Shocking State Fair Scandal, Wage Theft Epidemic, Spur Nationwide Protests

by Art Levine

Perfect conditions’ for ‘slave-like situations’ at New York State Fair

The allegations made against the New York food vendor illustrate some of the ways employers can purportedly intimidate and abuse workers. In a startling affidavit filed by a federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”) agent that accompanied the arrest of Pantelis Karageorgis in September (again, the charges have been dropped at the request of the prosecutor), Special Agent Thomas Kirwin outlines some of the alleged tricks of the labor trafficking trade used against employees hungry for work. The agent’s affidavit and the original class-action lawsuit filed by Nathaniel Charny as the lead counsel of Farmworkers Legal Services on behalf of four named workers and others paint quite an ugly picture.

And the local workers’ rights advocate, Rebecca Fuentes, who helped discover and expose the alleged Syracuse worker abuse, points out, “The guest worker visa program is very flawed, and it ties workers to one employer. That creates perfect conditions for almost slave-like situations,” like those facing the apparently starving New York State Fair workers. (She also claims that, at least in her region, the federal Department of Labor is more responsive than the state labor department, which dawdles for months in the face of serious wage theft complaints  – a pattern afflicting many weak state labor departments.)

The food-stand employees were recruited this past summer in Mexico with allegedly “fraudulent” promises of a relatively well-paying job, complete with written contracts, as legal guest workers under the H-2B visa program. They were hired as workers in the Karageorgis firm’s Greek food concession stands that accompanied some carnivals and fairs in the United States.

Starting in Buffalo in August, then moving to Syracuse, agent Kirwin reported, the workers arrived with no food or money, were allowed to get their meals solely by eating at the concessions stands only once or twice a day, and were housed in trailers on the fair sites, working 16 or more hours each day. “On the last day of the [Syracuse] fair, the employees worked 24 hours consecutively,” he noted about the state government-sponsored fair. “At the conclusion of the fair in Syracuse, the defendant paid each of the employees $260.”

Yet by some estimates, for the months of nonstop work at a promised  $10.71 per hour and extra overtime pay, the workers actually should have each received closer to $30,000. But for approximately 280 hours of work in just a three-week period, each worker got a mere $360, Kirwin stated.

When the employees complained about not getting their full wages, Karageorgis allegedly made a variety of threats, including potentially firing them, cutting their pay even further, or having them deported—and barring them from ever working in the U.S. again. Kirwin added, “The defendant, who traveled with the Employees the entire time, routinely berated and sought to demean them, calling them, for example, `pussies’ if they complained about illness or injury.”

One of the sadder ironies of the entire case is that some of these victims, also cited in the civil suit, such as Adonai Vasquez, started working for the vendor, Peter’s Fine Greek Food, Inc., as far back as July, 2008. But they kept returning on different work trips for as little as $1 or $2 an hour—despite the previously broken promises of $10 to $12 per hour in wages. This is the reality of the “race to the bottom” in the Wild West-style globalized economy: Immigrants are literally starving to work in the United States.

The still-pending civil suit filed in October alleges, “For a period at least as far back as six years from the date of commencement of this action, there have been hundreds of Mexican national treated in the same violative fashion in regards to the payment of wages.”

At the same time, the lawsuit claims, “Upon information and belief, Defendants [Karageorgis and his firm], grossed more than $500,000 in the past fiscal year.”

Even though one of Karegeorgis’s lawyers, Dawn Cardi, was unable to comment as of this writing, the ICE agent’s affidavit recounts Karageorgis’s version of events. The Greek food entrepreneur explained his operation: his agents recruit workers in Mexico and he  submits their legal paperwork to U.S. labor and immigration authorities. But he claimed to be surprised to learn that they were promised $10.71 an hour. He conceded to Kirwin he hadn’t yet paid his workers in full, but intended to do so—while somehow asserting that none of them ever worked in Buffalo for him and thus they weren’t owed money for that work. He also denied making any threats against his workers, except that he’d notify his attorney if they quit.

But the observant immigration agent also noticed that Karegeorgis wasn’t short of cash at the time of his arrest. “He had in his pants’ pockets three bulky wads of cash and also had a briefcase that he said contained money, the security of which he was concerned about,” Kirwin noted dryly. Despite the defendant’s claims, Kirwin added, the agent requested that the food merchant “be dealt with according to law.”

So far, though, he seems unlikely to face any criminal prosecution.

Activists in more than 30 cities, organized by Interfaith Worker Justice and backed by labor groups, are staging a National Day of Action Against Wage Theft on November 18. “As the crisis for working families in the economy has deepened, so too has the crisis of wage theft,” says Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ) Executive Director Kim Bobo, perhaps the country’s leading reformer addressing the ongoing scandal.

Indeed, the scandal surfaced when some of these legal guest workers showed up several weeks ago at a Syracuse area clinic, severely dehydrated and malnourished after allegedly being kept in virtual imprisonment in a trailer at the fair and at other locations; they were reportedly being denied thousands of dollars in legal wages owed them while working about 100 hours a week at fairs for months, according to legal filings and Danny Postel, communications coordinator for Interfaith Worker Justice.

The contractor, Pantelis Karageorgis, is the target of a labor standards class-action lawsuit filed last month by Farmworker Legal Services and a Labor Department investigation.

Today’s OSHA, of course, despite some new inspectors, is widely viewed as still failing to effectively protect workers. With just a thousand inspectors to oversee abuses and wage theft affecting over 20 million low-wage workers — the primary but not the sole victim of a crime affecting white-collar workers, too — the Wage and Hour Division hasn’t been able to turn around yet the willful flouting of labor laws essentially encouraged by the Bush Labor Department’s years of neglect.

Plans for Protest

Interfaith Worker Justice and its allies have  ambitious plans for its nationwide local protests next Thursday:

Events on the National Day of Action Against Wage Theft will include protests at businesses guilty of wage theft to demand back wages for workers and events at which political leaders, workers, faith leaders, community groups, and labor unions will present new initiatives to end wage theft.

In Houston, a worker center will release a local report on wage theft and will send a “Justice Bus” around the city to call attention to local businesses that steal their workers’ wages. Other innovative local events include a text messaging campaign, a “Worst Employers” Awards ceremony, “Know Your Rights” workshops for workers, a jazz funeral for lost wages and a Thanksgiving-themed auction and a dramatization against wage theft in Memphis.

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