Carmen Galindo is a soft-spoken woman of 58. She came here from Mexico and, like most people who leave their countries, she arrived in New York with only one dream: To make life better for her and her family, no matter how hard she had to work.
But Galindo said she never imagined she and her fellow workers would be mercilessly exploited and mistreated by an employer – in this case, Uncle George’s Greek Tavern, a popular Astoria restaurant that like so many other businesses in the city, took advantage of its immigrant employees’ vulnerability, she and other workers assert.
“I was there 15 years and never had a vacation,” Galindo said. “They paid me $285 for seven days of work per week. I did practically everything that had to be done in the kitchen, from cutting vegetables to cooking souvlaki. But [I] never had a raise or any benefits.”
When she got sick, Galindo said, she had to find someone to cover for her or risk being summarily fired.
“The last straw was when I was told that on top of everything else, I had to clean boxes of squid that weighed more than 60 pounds each,” she said. “I told the manager that I could not handle the weight, and he said that either I found someone who could do it or I would be sent home.
“After 15 years of hard work, they just fired me.”
It is a shameful story that repeats itself over and over. An employer mercilessly exploits defenseless workers without any regard for labor laws or the slightest hint of compassion for the men and women who make it possible for the business to succeed.
So even if the actors are different, the fact that eight Latino workers allege to have been mistreated and to have been subjected to gross violations of their rights to minimum wage, overtime pay and integrity as human beings is nothing new.
What is new is that the workers are not willing to just silently suffer the exploitation anymore.
On March 10, Galindo and her co-workers, all of them out of a job after having dared to claim their rights, filed a federal lawsuit demanding more than $100,000 in back wages and damages. They took the action in collaboration with Make the Road by Walking, an immigrants’ rights group.
And on Friday, the eight workers, all of whom were fired from the restaurant, and dozens of New Yorkers who support their right to be treated fairly, staged a demonstration in front of Uncle George, at 34th St. and Broadway in Astoria.
“We want everybody to know who these people really are,” said Nieves Padilla, of Make the Road by Walking. “We want the employers to know that these workers have the support of the community.”
Galindo and her fellow workers labored as assistant cooks, cooks, busboys and dishwashers at the restaurant. They cut and prepared food for customers and kept the kitchen and restaurant organized and clean.
But despite their hard work, the workers say, Uncle George’s managers routinely shouted at them and called them names. Employees had to stand during the entire work day without even a lunch break. The workers said that even when they were hurt while on the job, they had to continue working or face immediate termination.
And as if this was not enough, the workers allege that, like Galindo, they also were expected to work 10 to 13 hours per day, six to seven days per week.
Yet, they say, they were paid far below minimum wage and were denied overtime pay, which is mandated by law. Their wages ranged from $35 to $60 per day, that is, $3 to $5.50 per hour. Only one of the workers – the cook – was paid at a higher rate.
So outrageous was the abuse that, despite being unemployed, Galindo is upbeat.
“I am confident that we are going to win,” she said about the lawsuit. “I trust that finally we will get a little of what we earned with our hard work.”
And hopefully her former bosses also will get what they deserve.
We are keeping our fingers crossed.