En Español Know Your Rights
Source: New York Daily News
Subject: Workplace Justice
Type: Media Coverage

Worker's Plight is Food for Thought

As we look
forward to celebrating Christmas with family and friends, let’s not forget
those New Yorkers for whom the holiday season will not be a joyful time.

Some have
loved ones serving in Iraq
or Afghanistan;
others have seen their families torn apart by immigration raids, or live with
that constant fear.

Still
others, no matter how hard they work, can no longer afford to survive in a city
where the cost of living has gone through the roof.

Rodrigo
Vázquez belongs to this last category.

Hardworking
and decent, Vázquez worked for 12 years in the kitchen of a popular Manhattan restaurant, the
Trattoria Pesce Pasta. But last July, he felt he could no longer take the
exploitation he had endured for over a decade and left.

Who can
blame him? During all the years he spent at the Trattoria Pesce Pasta, Vázquez
consistently worked 12 or 13 hours a day, six days a week, but was never paid
overtime.

The extra
hours were mandatory, but were never compensated at the time-and-a-half rate
mandated by law.

As if to
underscore his employer’s lack of consideration for the workers, today – almost
five months after he left the job – the restaurant still has not paid Vázquez for
his final two weeks of work. He estimates that the back wages owed to him
amount to $45,000.

Vázquez,
though, is not alone in his struggle for justice. On Wednesday, more than 50
people, most of them immigrant workers, stood outside the 46th St. office of Luciano Marchignoli,
the restaurant’s owner.

It was a
protest on behalf of Vázquez organized by Make the Road New York, a grass-roots community group.
Within the next two weeks, Vázquez, assisted by the same organization, will
file a formal complaint with the state Department of Labor.

"The
owner is away until the end of the year, but we are hopeful – we are always
hopeful – things will be resolved when he returns," said Irene Tung, of Make the Road New York. "If it isn’t, we will keep
coming back."

Vázquez’s
predicament is not at all rare. According to a study conducted in 2005 by the
Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York, which organizes restaurant workers
in the city, 59% of the 165,000 restaurant workers interviewed – many of them
undocumented immigrants – said they are not paid for extra hours.

According to
the study, while the average yearly salary in the entire private sector in New York City in 2000 was
$46,654, restaurant workers made an average salary of $19,632 – a gap that has
increased 17% since 1990.

The majority
of these laborers live below the poverty level, and if this was not enough,
many reported being discriminated against in their workplaces.

Of the 500
workers surveyed for the study, 33% reported verbal abuse on the basis of race,
immigration status or language. A similar number also complained of having been
passed over for a promotion for the same reasons.

According to
the report, the fact that 36% of the workers are undocumented immigrants makes
it easier for employers to take advantage of them.

Today, of
course, it is even worse. It is no secret that the situation of immigrants has
become much harder in the past two years.

"The
millions of immigrant workers who pick our food, take care of our children and
elderly and in thousands of other ways greatly contribute to our economy
deserve better treatment," said Héctor Figueroa, secretary treasurer of
SEIU Local 32BJ, which represents more than 85,000 property service workers.

Something to
keep in mind as we celebrate Christmas with our loved ones.