From neighbor Eleanor Rodgers:
Golden Farm on Church Avenue and E. 4th Street in Kensington paid its workers less than $4 an hour until March 2010 when the workers started to organize themselves. They and the owner Sonny Kim are now engaged in a battle over pay and conditions, and the workers are asking for community support.
Please join the protest outside the store on Saturday, February 11th, at 2:00 p.m.
Below is a report I wrote for the kwtneighbors listserve about a meeting on this issue held last week.I went to the meeting with Golden Farm workers on Wednesday. There were about 15 people from the neighborhood and 6 Golden Farm workers, plus three people from NY Communities for Change and Councilman Brad Lander.
This is what the workers reported:
In 2008 the Department of Labor visited the store and took statements from the workers that they were not being paid minimum wage. This raised their hopes that something would be done to improve their wages, but for a year nothing happened. Then in 2009 the Dept of Labor fined Sonny Kim between three and four thousand dollars. A fine which he refused to pay, and he continued to pay less than minimum wage.
Typical pay and hours for a worker in Golden Farm at that point was to work six 12 hour days a week (for a total of 70 hours) for $250/week.
In early 2010 some of the workers met with NY Communities for Change, a group which had just launched a campaign in support of exploited immigrant shop workers in New York city.
The workers decided to start a lawsuit to get their wages raised to the minimum, and to try to join a union. They held a meeting of all the workers where the vast majority were in favor of joining a union.
Then in March Sonny Kim discovered about the plans to unionize. He had a staff meeting where he announced that he would raise their wages to the minimum of $7.25 immediately, provided they end the drive to unionize. If however they continued to try to unionize he said that he would continue to pay them less than $4 an hour and that he would call Immigration and get ICE to raid the store.
Here’s what one worker said about that threat: “We used to wear t-shirts that said Golden Farm on them but he has taken those away so that “When ICE comes I can say – “Him, I don’t know him. He’s just in my shop.””
After that meeting a lot of the workers were too scared to support any further action, and since then they have been paid minimum wage.
There are 24 workers in total and despite the intimidation 10 of them have kept their names on the lawsuit (which is now about back wages) and are continuing to try to improve their conditions in the store. (Two of those ten have left Golden Farm in the last few months because of pressure form management but are continuing to support the struggle of the others)
Here’s what one worker, Roberto, said:
“We’re not taking anything from him. We’re asking for what he takes from us. You all know me, I work in produce, the coldest part of the store. I’m there twelve hours a day. The cilantro comes in boxes of ice. I unpack it. I bring my own gloves – he doesn’t give us any. I work a lot of hours right above an open drain full of dirty water. Inspectors came to the store and said he must do something about it. But it is still there. Sometimes my head hurts because of the smell from the drain, but I must keep working there for hours. We work honestly but we are humiliated a lot. Mr Kim and the managers shout at us. When he is in a bad mood everybody suffers. He walks in the store and kicks things.
Three years ago I came to work on a Wednesday morning. I had been allowed to keep a radio at my workstation. He had said that I could. I came in and my radio was lying smashed on the floor. Mr Kim shouted at me and told me I was fired. When I ask him why he curses at me.”
Four or five of the workers got together and approached Mr Kim later in the day and persuaded him not to fire Roberto.
Leaving aside the issue of back wages, which will eventually be addressed by the courts, what I got from the workers at the meeting was that their workplace conditions were what they are primarily concerned about. Health and safety issues like the open drain or the amount of carrying of heavy boxes individuals have to do. Sick days, shorter shifts - Mr Kim had promised in March to give them 11 hour shifts but it has not happened. They want the right not to be fired on the spot for no apparent reason and to be treated with respect as people.
They hope to achieve at least some of these changes by getting Mr Kim to sit down with them and negotiate a contract. Not involving any union but just the workers in the store and Mr Kim.
When they asked us to sign a card calling on Mr Kim to give them a fair deal this is what they meant.
After the workers spoke, the meeting discussed next steps and what we as a community can do to help them. They are not asking anyone to boycott the store. It is far more important for people shopping in the store to let Mr Kim know that they support the workers. You can call and leave a message at (718) 871-1009.
We agreed to build for a larger protest outside the store on Saturday February 11 at 2pm. Please join the protest and encourage your neighbors to come too.
In order to build for the protest we are going to be going door to door in the neighborhood with flyers explaining the situation and letters of protest which people can sign. If you can help with that or any other sort of outreach please contact Alexandra Garcia from NY Communities for Change at(347) 927-7895.
That’s the end of the meeting report. I’d like to make a point of my own. While the lawsuit is ongoing the workers named in the suit are legally protected from being fired in retaliation. Once it’s over they will have no protection, unless Mr Kim has signed a contract which gives them protection. If we as a community can’t help them to achieve this in my opinion there is every reason to expect him to fire them and to follow that by dropping the wages for the remaining staff who are too frightened to fight him.
I can’t state strongly enough how much courage it has taken for those ten workers to stand up. At the end of the meeting I asked Roberto if it would be alright for me to quote him in this report. I intended not to use his name and was concerned about mentioning the radio as that‘s a very specific detail. Instead he told me to use his name, he said “I want my brothers to know that we can stand up. We have lived in the shadows too long.”
Hope to see you at the rally.