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Working In These Times

Thursday, Jun 16, 2011, 2:59 pm

Organizers Work With Businesses to Prevent Wage Theft

BY Taylor Long

Juan Lopez shares his story at a press conference outside Kennedy Fish & Chicken restaurant in Chicago.   (Photo contributed by Ana Guajardo)

CHICAGO—Despite the harsh anti-wage theft legislation passed in Illinois that went into effect this year, low-wage and immigrant workers continue to become the target of exploitative business owners.

The latest examples: Juan Lopez and his wife Laila Aleman, who worked at Kennedy Fish & Chicken and were allegedly fired after Lopez filed a lawsuit to recover more than nine years worth of lost overtime wages from owner Ali Liaquat. 

“When I told him he was supposed to follow the state law—that he was supposed to pay overtime after 40 hours—he told me ‘I never pay overtime and I never will, so if you don’t like it then you can go,’” Lopez told In These Times

Lopez says he sometimes worked as many as six or seven days a week for 12 hours each day, all the while being referred to by Liaquat as his ‘Mexican machine.’ According to Aleman, who filed a discrimination complaint against Liaquat with the Illinois Department of Human Rights last week, Liaquat found many ways to discriminate against Hispanic employees and favor employees from Pakistan, where Liaquat is from.  

“I and other employees that Mr. Liaquat believed to be Mexican were not given any lunch breaks and had to eat as we worked, while Pakistani workers would have three lunch breaks (30 minutes each break),” Aleman testified in the report. 

Lopez and Aleman are far from alone. As Kari Lyderson reported following the signing of the Wage Theft Enforcement Act (PDF) in August 2011, more than two thirds of workers in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York suffer from wage theft. According to Ana Guajardo, executive director of Centro de Trabajadores Unidos, it’s shocking how often injustices occur not out of malice, but because small employers and restaurateurs don’t understand their legal responsibilities. To keep employers in the loop when it comes to new wage theft legislation, many workers centers like Guajardo’s have decided to adopt a new, preventative strategy centered on educating employers. 

“Many small businesses really don’t know the laws,” Guajardo told In These Times. “At a workshop on the southeast side a few businesses didn’t know the rules for vacation time. What’s even more surprising is that one business didn’t even know about the state’s minimum wage requirements.” 

Centro de Trabajadores Unidos, which serves the southeast side and Blue Island communities, is in the process of promoting an employer Code of Conduct (PDF) modeled after the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York (ROC-NY) code adopted two years ago. 

Emily Sanders of ROC-NY says since the conduct code’s inception, it has become less focused on the contract itself and more reliant on its “NYC Resturant Owner Roundtable,” which helps owners improve business without compromising the rights of their workers. Sanders told In These Times the roundtable includes between 20 and 30 restaurants in the metropolitan area who troubleshoot common problems in the business world and “identify weaknesses and goals for the future” when it comes to labor practices. 

Restaurants were among the first industries workers centers began to target in wage theft education campaigns because of high instances of exploitation. According to Pete Meyers, coordinator of the Tompkins County Workers Center in upstate New York, many restaurant owners start out as chefs and fail to keep accurate records simply because they don’t know how or that they have to. 

“Often time restaurant owners are wearing many different hats,” Meyers said. In 2009 Meyers told In These Times the state Labor Department found 17 restaurants in Tompkins County guilty of labor violations because, “they didn’t understand the law.” This encouraged the workers center to work alongside the county health department in publishing and distributing a “Restaurant Owners Manual,” (PDF) which spells out best practices in plain English. The manual is one of the first of its kind to specifically target restaurant owners. 

“We got a lot of publicity because often times the relationship between workers centers and employers gets portrayed in an adversarial light,” Meyers told In These Times. “We’re advocating primarily for the rights of workers to their fair wages under the law, and some perceive this to be anti-business. So what we’re doing with this manual seems strange to them.”  

Guajardo plans to take these educating models one step further by extending the code of conduct to all community businesses—not just restaurants. In addition to a written ‘symbolic agreement’ and community roundtable, Guajardo says businesses that sign on to the agreement will receive a ‘stamp of approval,’ which they can display in their store windows. So far, she said two businesses have signed the code of conduct—both of which have been the target of past wage theft campaigns. In the coming weeks, she says the center plans to get many more community businesses in their corner. 

On Monday, faith and community members gathered outside of Kennedy Fish and Chicken carrying posters, wielding drums and whistles and armed with over 1,000 community signatures urging Laiquat to be the next business owner on the southeast side to amend his business practices.  At the sight of local camera crews, Laiquat retreated to the back of the restaurant, refusing to address his former employees and the 20 others who gathered at their sides. 

Our Lady of Guadalup Father Carl Quebedeaux told In These Times he’s seen the same thing from business owners many times before. “We’ve done this many times before and they usually don’t respond,” he said. But according to Lopez, he will keep coming back until Laiquat “shows his face and takes the time to listen.”

Taylor Long is a summer 2011 in These Times Web intern.

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