Last week's annual Al Smith Dinner at the Waldorf Astoria--a white-tie dinner at-tended by the mayor, the governor, and the city's power elite--is the kind of A-list event regularly hosted by the hotel. Whenever the president and other heads of state sit down to enjoy a sumptuous meal at the Waldorf, the banquet manager attends to all the details, including the placement of the silverware, tablecloths, and even how the napkins are folded. Yet a few miles and a world away from the pomp and glitter, men and women, many of whom are immigrants from places like Guadalajara and San Luis Potosí, are sorting, cleaning, and stacking the linens that will adorn those same tables. They work for $5.15 an hour in a Staten Island commercial laundromat, where some claim they put in 80 to 90 hours a week with no health benefits, vacation, or sick time. In some cases, they work outside, in snow and rain, unloading laundry trucks.
But on September 15, five days after workers at the laundromat had their attorney send a letter to their employer demanding $159,000 in back wages and overtime, agents of the Immigration and Naturalization Service raided the place and arrested 10 illegal workers, sending them to detention centers in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and York, Pennsylvania. Nine of those were quickly deported to Mexico, although none of the workers who filed the complaint were caught in the INS raid. At the laundromat, all of the workers arrested were replaced the next day.
The company, Launderall in Staten Island, is currently under investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor for possible overtime abuses. The owner of the firm, "Buddy" Friscia, told the Voice that he "might" owe some back wages but "nowhere near the amount" claimed. In addition, he says he paid anything over 40 hours a week in cash, "off the books," so there is "no way the workers can prove anything."
The case of the Mexican workers has an all-too-familiar ring to Graham Boyd of the Yale Law School Workers Rights Project. Together with the American Civil Liberties Union and a coalition of 20 other groups, he filed a claim on September 17 under the NAFTA treaty trying to end the government's policy of having the Labor Department report undocumented workers to INS, making it dangerous for workers to file wage claims.
"The Clinton administration has maintained an illegal policy of protecting sweatshop operators in defiance of its obligations under the NAFTA labor side-agreement," Boyd said. The Clinton policy "reveals the hypocrisy of the administration's so-called 'No Sweat' campaign," he added, "in requiring the Labor Department to notify INS about workers trying to better their conditions." The result, according to Boyd, is "widespread underenforcement of minimum-wage and overtime laws."
One worker who was arrested, Ezequiel Torres, was employed at the company for the past 12 years. Because he has two daughters born in the United States and has a lengthy work history, he was able to post a $2500 bond with the INS and will plead his case before an immigration judge in December.
Alexander Jardines, the lawyer for the Mexican workers, said he wants to sit down with Friscia and work out an agreement to pay the back wage claims. "I don't want to close him down," Jardines told the Voice. "But we have proof, including time cards, that my clients worked 80 to 90 hours a week."
Friscia vehemently denies that employees worked anywhere near those hours, saying that one of the workers forged the time cards and was selling fraudulent green cards for $200 each, misleading him into thinking that all his employees were legal immigrants. Under federal law, the employer is responsible for keeping records, called I-9 forms, on file showing that workers have supplied documentation of their status. There is no obligation to make sure the papers are legitimate.
There is some dispute as to who called in the INS. Father William Harder, of St. Mary's of the Assumption parish on Staten Island, finds it odd that the raid occurred five days after a letter of claim was sent to Friscia. He suspects that Friscia himself reported on the workers, as a way out of paying the money. However, none of the seven people who are being represented by Jardines were at work on the day of the raid, the timing of which Friscia calls "too coincidental." Calls to the INS went unanswered.
The INS raid came as a shock to Marina Ortiz, one of the workers, who has been living in the Midland Beach section of Staten Island for the past seven years. The town sits on the Raritan Bay, three miles from the Verrazano Bridge. Ortiz is one of an estimated 5000 Mexicans who have found their way to the borough, working at subminimum-wage jobs in landscaping, at car washes, cleaning dishes in restaurants, and pulling apart cars in auto junkyards along the Kill Van Kull waterfront. One of the reasons that Mexicans flocked to the city's least-populated borough, she said, was becausethe enforcement of the immigration laws is perceived as not being as strict as in California or Texas. "When you get stopped for a traffic violation in California, they ask for your green card," she added. "Not here."
Torres was the first to find his way to Staten Island and the laundromat, and sent word back home that there was plenty of work, albeit at low wages, and that "no one bothers you here." His sentiment is echoed by five laundromat workers who said they are accepted by their neighbors in the beach community, a blue-collar town that was once a resort getaway for the Irish and Italians.
"You can walk down the street at two in the morning for miles and it's safe," said Eduardo Palafox Gonzalez. After the raid, however, there are mixed feelings about staying. The most difficult aspect of emigrating, said Roberto Guiterez, is that he misses his family and the quieter way of life. "Some day, I would like to make enough money to stay here and work for six months in the summer and then six months in Mexico. I don't like the cold."
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