It happens far too often: Abusive employers take advantage of the vulnerability of immigrants – documented and undocumented.
But in the case of 15 current and former workers of Amersino Marketing Group in Brooklyn, the employees are not taking the abuse any longer – they are fighting back.
The Bushwick fruit and vegetable distributor, one of the largest in the city, hired immigrant laborers – mainly from Mexico and other Latin American countries – to work loading trucks full of fruit and vegetables bound for the Bronx Hunts Point Market and retail stores throughout the five boroughs.
The immigrants say they worked for Amersino, at 161 Gardner Ave., East Williamsburg, at various times beginning in 2002.
They filed a lawsuit Friday in Brooklyn Federal Court in which they allege that Amersino made them work as many as 80 hours per week with one 15-minute lunch break.
Minimum wage, workers say, was a rare luxury, not to mention the overtime pay mandated by state and federal law.
The complaint also names Yu (Henry) Wang and Chow Wa as defendants.
“What I want is for el patrón to pay us what is owed to us,” said Juan Antonio Rodríguez Evangelista, a 23-year-old Mexican worker who is one of the plaintiffs.
“It is important that the employer learns a lesson. This should not happen again.”
The demand is huge: The workers are suing Amersino for a whopping $812,000 in unpaid minimum wage and overtime compensation. Judging by what the workers say, Amersino had a sweet deal for years.
Rodríguez’s job was loading trucks with 40-pound boxes of fruit and vegetables in the warehouse.
His work day was long: from 5:30 a.m. to 4:30 or 5 p.m.
“It is hard work, and they didn’t pay overtime,” Rodríguez said.
“They paid the same amount of $300 or $330, depending on how long you had been working for the company every week, no matter how many hours you worked that week.”
Deborah Axt, a lawyer at Make the Road by Walking, a Brooklyn community group representing the workers, said these situations are all too common in communities such as Bushwick.
“Workers struggle to make ends meet for less than the legal minimum wage,” she said.
The immigrants are represented by the law firm of Latham & Watkins, Make the Road by Walking and the Urban Justice Center.
Amersino’s history of conflict with its employees is not new. A year ago, workers attempted to form a union. As a result, four were fired, Rodríguez among them.
“They didn’t give any explanation as to why we were being dismissed,” Rodríguez said. “They simply said they did not need us any more.”
But on Feb. 27, the National Labor Relations Board directed Amersino to rehire Rodríguez and Manuel López, both of whom are plaintiffs in the current litigation. They had been dismissed, the board concluded, for their union organizing activities. Rodríguez will report back to work on April 2.
A spokesman for Amersino who did not want to identify himself by name declined to discuss the lawsuit.
“It is a legal process still going on,” the man said on the phone. “We have no comment.”
“As a result [of these abuses],” Axt said, “we see families forced to live doubled-up in overcrowded, unsafe housing – unable to cover the basics like food, medicine or even a MetroCard.”
And this is a crime.