August 24, 2015
By Joe Maniscalco
Bronx, NY – Advocates for a group of fired restaurant workers terminated after protesting ongoing wage theft at a popular Bronx eatery, say that the outrageous workplace abuses they experienced extend far beyond a single establishment — and they want others facing similar abuses to know that they have the power to fight back.
Roughly a half dozen Liberato Restaurant workers have reportedly been fired over the course an almost 16-month battle with the establishment’s owner, Manuel Antonio Liberato. What they’ve found after seeking alternative employment at other restaurants and supermarkets, however, is more of the same kind of brazen disregard for basic worker rights.
“We discovered the problem is not only Liberato Restaurant,” Mahoma Lopez Garfias, co-director of the Laundry Workers Center, told LaborPress at a Thursday night workers’ rights forum held on Valentine Avenue. “The problem is bigger. [Business owners] don’t respect the labor laws.”
Most of the predominately Latino workers involved in the Liberato Restaurant fight for workplace justice, are undocumented emigres. And advocates say that unscrupulous business owners are using the fear of immediate deportation to exploit workers.
“The reality is that we had workers who where former workers of this restaurant and they told us they tried to get a job at another restaurant and they were treated basically the same,” State Senator Gustavo Rivera [D-33rd District] told LaborPress. “There are a lot of similarities here where you have employers who are allegedly taking advantage of workers who are undocumented and easy to intimidate.”
Despite the entrenched fear of deportation, all workers — regardless of their immigration status — are protected against wage theft and other on-the-job abuses.
“You might think that as an undocumented worker that you have no rights and nothing protects you, but that’s not the way it works,” State Senator Rivera added. “Regardless of what your status is, if you are working in this county, you have laws that protect you.”
Earlier this week, a business owner named Samuel Just was arrested and charged in an alleged scheme to defraud and cheat five people he hired as day laborers in Brooklyn.
On Thursday night, Oswaldo Mendoza, a member of NICE — New Immigrant Community Empowerment — reported similar incidents in the Bronx where day laborers have been abandoned without pay after being hired to do construction work out on Long Island.
In addition to its immediate economic impact, Mendoza said wage theft impacts hardworking men and women in other profound ways as well.
“Wage theft in our community also steals our dignity as human beings,” he said.
Assemblyman Victor M. Pichardo [86th District] chided business owners who continue to try and flout labor laws in the pursuit of personal profit.
“We hope to put enough pressure on these business owners to understand that doing the right thing and making sure you are profitable, are not mutually exclusive,” the Bronx assemblyman said. “You can do both — make money and make sure you respect the rights of workers.”
Cheated workers — mostly non-union immigrant men and women — are currently owed $3.7 in prevailing wage settlement money — but New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer is having difficulty locating the more than 1,000 eligible parties.
That's partly because the same fear and lack of eduction about basic worker rights that makes them so vulnerable to bad bosses, also makes it hard for many undocumented workers to remain in any one place for long.
Those speaking out at Thursday night’s forum say that they are advocating not only for themselves, but for all exploited workers.
In a bizarre turn in the Liberato saga, workers and their advocates suing for stolen wages are also facing a RICO case brought by restaurant owner Manuel Antonio Liberato who is alleging racketeering, extortion, and harassment.
“They fired us for organizing and sued us for talking about our rights,” fired Liberato worker Maggy Andres said. “They intimidated us, but what we’re doing is for the betterment of everyone.”