Neighborhoods

Sewing Up Bushwick

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Last Tuesday, Zita Pagan got a check for $3840 after suing former employer Mamaia Sportswear for back wages, overtime, and damages. Miguel Reyes, who, like Pagan, hails from Mexico, expects this week to see the final installment of his $15,000 settlement for unpaid wages and damages with clothing manufacturer Sares International. And in January, two other garment workers won $25,000 in overtime pay.

The money is important to these folks, because they, like thousands of immigrants who work in the garment factories in and around Bushwick, Brooklyn, rarely make more than the minimum wage while working an average of 60 hours per week. But the sizable sums are also waking up exploitative employers to the fact that there’s a new force to reckon with. With a combination of bold lawyering and old-fashioned community outreach, garment worker group Trabajadores en Acción—a project of the Bushwick-based advocacy organization Make the Road by Walking—is winning dollars and respect in one of the area’s chief industries.

“I had been coming to these meetings and had been feeling a sense of unity,” Pagan remembers, explaining how she found the courage to sue her former employer. In fact, on the freezing December night she hand-delivered a complaint letter to the factory owner, roughly a dozen members of Trabajadores en Acción accompanied her, chanting their encouragement and handing out know-your-rights flyers in front of the factory.

The group hopes that strength in numbers—there are 30 regular members so far—will outweigh the daunting obstacles the area’s garment workers face in seeking wage and hour compliance from employers. At least 90 percent of the predominantly Latino and Eastern European workers are undocumented, according to organizers; many either don’t know the labor laws or believe the rules don’t apply to them.

The possibility of getting reported or blacklisted can be a powerful deterrent to protesting unfair conditions, workers say. In an area populated with dozens—some estimate hundreds—of mom-and-pop subcontractors, a quick phone call from one boss can instantly alert another to INS or Department of Labor raids or rat out troublemaking employees. Sometimes, jobs can literally disappear; a factory that’s beset by too many complaints may pull up in the dark of night and relocate.

“People have a lot of fear. I know someone who is making $3.50 an hour, and she’s totally afraid” to complain, says Pagan.

But the young, socially conscious lawyers who staff Make the Road by Walking believe it’s easier to demand justice when you’ve got the law on your side. In Reyes’s case, which was unusual because he chose to remain on the job while battling management in court, it took legal muscle to beat back a vengeful boss.

Reyes had not only demanded compensation for two and a half years’ worth of overtime, he was talking to other workers about their rights. His boss promptly cut his wages and warned his coworkers against helping him. In response, Make the Road by Walking attorneys obtained a court order forbidding retaliatory action. Trabajadores en Acción members forged ahead with a protest and plastered the factory with flyers, and the $15,000 settlement came through in a matter of weeks.

Proof that the lawyer-community combination packs a solid punch: Reyes still works at Sares International, but is now paid overtime and has experienced no backlash since winning the settlement.

The group measures success not only in dollars but also in less tangible benefits. Pagan’s victory is worth more than the $3840 settlement, because she bested a boss who “treated me like an animal.” When Gladys Torres, an Ecuadoran immigrant, first joined Trabajadores en Acción, she says, “I worked in a factory and I felt humiliated, assaulted by offensive words.” While she’s won no money, the camaraderie she’s found “was like the opening of a door for me. It was like a friend extending a hand.”

Make the Road by Walking has “made the impact,” according to Father James Kelley, pastor at St. Brigid’s Roman Catholic Church in Bushwick and a decades-long neighborhood figure. In a district where the community board has classified public service deficiencies as “intense,” and where the poverty level is one of the highest in the city, the group’s gains are big news.

Some community activists have raised concerns about Make the Road by Walking’s approach, arguing that its emphasis on legal maneuvering means those without law degrees are necessarily less empowered. But Trabajadores en Acción attorney Ben Sachs argues that his intervention comes only at the behest of the workers. The goal for staff lawyers, he says, is “to feel useful, but not necessary.” Moreover, legal counsel is free to any member who lives in the area and pays $24 in annual dues.

Father Kelly, who has seen the area’s garment industry go from bad to worse as undocumented immigrants are increasingly exploited, welcomes Make the Road by Walking’s mixture of community outreach and legal advocacy. It is “the most sophisticated organization we have in Brooklyn,” he says, noting that it is “anything but grassroots—they’re all lawyers.” But as long as the group keeps bringing home the bacon, he says, “more power to them.”

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