DECEMBER 2002

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Campaign to Better the Situation for Deli Workers
From Hoy
November 25, 2002

By Maria del Carmen Amado

Fulfilling his dream to reach the United States cost Mario Peralta, from Puebla, Mexico, a three month long trip during which he risked his life. Once he arrived, he got a job at a Manhattan deli and, even though he felt glad to be helping his family back in Mexico, his walk of the cross had not yet ended.

He barely spoke or understood English. He had to work shifts that were longer than 12 hours a day. He wasn’t given the right to a break, nor to lunch, and his weekly salary was $230.

"My bosses insulted me, they called me names in English, but I never complained, because I could not afford to lose the job, I had to keep sending money home," said Peralta, who is 22 years old and lives in Brooklyn. He works as a ‘helper’ at the 53 Deli.

Currently 14,000 immigrants work in the city at an average of 2,000 delis. Ninety percent of the workers are Mexican, while 80 percent of the owners are Korean.

"For years these immigrants worked in difficult conditions and with inferior salaries. Their complaints reached the ears of community groups and authorities like attorney general Eliot Spitzer, who ordered an investigation in 1999," explained Gerry Dominguez, director of Casa Mexico.

After proving that shifts had lasted for 14 hours between six and seven days a week, the attorney general set up a code of conduct last September to better the situation for workers.

Currently, there are 20 delis that have accepted the code, paying at least minimum wage, and another 300 are expected to sign the document. Those who sign before December 31 will not be investigated for unpaid wages and illegal shifts. They also will not be sent to court.

So far, Spitzer has managed to get some deli owners to pay what they owe in back wages to many workers and has brought to light the case of 12 workers at the Metro Deli, which was closed by the owner after the workers organized.

"Richard Bar preferred to close instead of paying us," said one of the workers. The group is waiting for $30,000 in compensation.

The case motivated Local 1500 to initiate a unionization campaign, "because it was necessary to establish contracts and do away with this situation," said Pat Parcell, director of organizers, whose first pact between the union, the owner and the workers was signed with Deli 53. "We have another 12 affiliations in progress and we support the attorney general’s code."

According to union director Carlos Ramos, when a contract is approved, it is beneficial to all, even those that didn’t support the contract, and workers from other ethnic groups such as Chinese, or Muslims.

Undocumented workers shouldn’t be afraid of being turned in to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, explained Parcell, because in New York everyone has the right to just treatment and to organize. "If they threaten to turn someone in to the INS, the businesses will suffer, because the fines for contracting a worker without papers is $25,000, an amount that would cause the business to close."

Translated from Spanish by Erica Pearson

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