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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OH-NO-COSTCO – Wholesale Ocean Destruction

Atlantic cod fisheries have collapsed

Image via Wikipedia

OH-NO-COSTCO – Wholesale Ocean Destruction.

As Costco grows bigger, so does their footprint on the environment.

Download the Activist Toolkit, it is a .pdf file.

“Just as our work has encouraged and illuminated progressive seafood retailers around the country, it has also exposed a group of laggards that continue to sell unsustainable seafood with impunity. These companies have yet to take any meaningful action to address the rampant environmental destruction caused by their seafood purchasing behavior. Within this category, one company in particular is wreaking havoc in our oceans on an unparalleled scale: Costco.”

“In any Costco warehouse you’ll find shelves and shelves full of red list seafood. Greenpeace surveys found that Costco continues to sell fifteen of the twenty-two red list species: Alaskan pollock, Atlantic cod, Atlantic salmon, Atlantic sea scallops, Chilean sea bass, grouper, monkfish, ocean quahog, orange roughy, red snapper, redfish, South Atlantic albacore tuna, swordfish, tropical shrimp, and yellowfin tuna.”

Included in the toolkit are colored cards that can be copied and handed out with information and some flyers and a lot f information.

What is “sustainable” seafood?
Sustainable fisheries and aquaculture operations are those which can be maintained indefinitely without reducing the targeted species’ ability to maintain its population at healthy levels, and without adversely impacting on other species within the ecosystem — including humans — by removing their food source, accidentally killing them, or damaging their physical environment.

CNN News Video: Toxic Coal Ash in Pennsylvania Contamines Water

Coal Power Plant

Image by davipt via Flickr

News Report on Toxic Coal Ash!!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

GhettoPhysics: Will the Real Pimps and Hos Please Stand Up!

A new film from the makers of “What the Bleep Do We Know?”, called Ghetto Physics, examines the interplay between pimps and hos.  It shows how the dynamics in this relationship is the simplest form of how power is yielded in the world.  It goes from the streets to Wall Street.  It compares corporate executives to pimps and hypothesizes that the same tactics are used in the board room as on the corner.

GhettoPhysics supposedly uses some of the principles of MetaPhysics.  There is a direct relationship between mind and matter.

We see how the pimps sell their vision of business while the women do all the work.  These roles play out from this microcosm to the macrocosm.  At the street level we judge it as vulgar, unfair, we see the exploitation of these women, and it is real.  At other levels it is more subtle and for some reason more acceptable.

“What the Bleep Do We Know?” was a movie that brought words to the experiences I have had and validated my beliefs.  “GhettoPhysics” is the movie I have been waiting for in this chapter of my life, where I have gone from the microcosm of me to the macrocosm of the world and how it functions.

GhettoPhysics: Will the Real Pimps and Hos Please Stand Up

The Story of Stuff by Annie Leonard

Part 8: “Do One Green Thing: Saving the Earth Through Simple, Everyday Choices” by Mindy Pennybacker: Transportation

ECO Certified tourism logo

Image via Wikipedia

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Part 6

Part 7

Transportation

I have recently been left without a car (well maybe like 6 months ago). I have been packing up my back-pack for a day downtown and heading out. It is difficult with my pain issues, but on good days I love walking and listening to my headphones. I also get a chance to smile at people as I walk by and get a closer look of local businesses.

Walking, Biking, and Ride Sharing
–spend 30 minutes a day walking or cycling instead of driving
–flying is greener, when going coast to coast, than driving. Driving about doubles your CO2 pounds.
–Union of Concerned Scientists’ green travel report
–you can improve your mileage on your car by simplesteps such as keeping the engine tuned and tires correctly inflated and driving at a steady speed
–the train across country is better than flying
–compare prices online
–carpool
–;public transportation
–reduce what you carry in your car
–driving slower saves CO2 emissions and is more cost-effective

Best Shoes
Adbusters’ Blackspot Sneakers: 100% organic hemp uppers, made in union shop
Adidas SLVR Eco-labeled shoes: made with hemp and company claims to be working towards being PVC-free
Asics Running Shoes: look for PVC-free labels
Birkenstock: cork soles are a renewable resource; they take it back and replace soles
Brooks: uses FSC-certified paper fpr packaging; Biomogo midsole biodegrades quicker in landfills
Chaco: PVC-free shoes, sandals, flip-flops
Dan K. Forest: organic hemp shoes
Earth Shoes: 70% recycled material in insoles
–End Running Shoes: made with PCW recycled plastic, bamboo
Hunter PVC-free: natural rubber “Wellies”
Keds Green Label Shoes: PVC-free sneakers made of 100% organic cotton, 20% recycled rubber outsoles, recycled insoles, recycled PET bottle laces
Nike Considered: vegetable-based tanning; fewer petroleum-based and more water-based, low VOC solvents and adhesives; recycled laces, etc.
Patagonia Eco Shoes: stitched, reducing VOC glues and solvents, can replace some parts of shoe; leather is vegetable tanned
Rawganique: hemp sandles for men and women
Simple Shoes Eco Sneaks and Green Toe Eco: blend organic cotton and other natural fabrics, cork, and PCW-recycled PET plastics
Timberland Earthkeepers: shoes and boots; natural rubber soles, etc
Toms: makes footwear for a greener tomorrow with hemp, recycled plastic bottles, and recycled rubber

Donate Old Shoes
www.hopeRuns.org
www.shoe4africa.org
www.shoebank.org
www.soles4souls.org
www.solesresponsibility.org

Airplanes
–trim off carbon footprint in other areas of your life if you are a frequent traveler
–you can purchase carbon offset with companies that invest in renewable enerfyu
–Offset Companies:
Atmosfair
Climate Friendly
Myclimate
TerraPass
Vermont-based NativeEnergy
–fly airlines with good environmental records with Climate Counts