Death in a New York Food Sweatshop

When many people think of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, it’s the fashionable boutiques, music scene, and hip bars that come to mind. But for thousands of recent immigrants, the eastern section of Williamsburg is where you go to find work in food processing and distribution factories that service many of New York City’s markets and restaurants. If you’ve ever eaten a meal in New York, you can be assured that you’ve consumed food that has been produced and distributed through one of these food companies and those in a few adjacent neighborhoods.

Hundreds of small and mid-sized food warehouses line an industrial corridor starting in East Williamsburg and Bushwick, and extending into the Ridgewood and Maspeth neighborhoods of Queens. Rice, seafood, hummus, soda, onions, tortillas, you name it; massive quantities of those products and everything in between is produced or packed in these factories and then delivered in bulk to restaurants and grocery stores before they end up on our plates. Though not widely-known, this in-between section of the food supply chain plays an absolutely critical role in getting us the food we all need to survive and thrive.

Despite the indispensable role they play, the workers at these food businesses, largely recent immigrants from Latin America and China, constitute an invisible workforce. Out of sight from the consuming public, employers in this industrial corridor often maintain what can be fairly characterized as sweatshop conditions. Wage theft, reckless disregard for the safety of workers, grueling shifts through the night, and abusive management are all common hardships facing workers in the sector. The work is heavy and exhausting, yet workers typically earn poverty wages and almost no one receives any health or retirement benefits.

It was in this industrial zone of food sweatshops that Juan Baten, the 22-year old father of a seven-month old daughter and a devoted husband, tragically lost his life. Mr. Baten, who lived in Brooklyn and was originally from Guatemala, worked at a tortilla factory called Tortilleria Chinantla in East Williamsburg. Last week, Mr. Baten was crushed and killed in a dough mixing machine. Mr. Baten’s workplace did not have a union and had never been inspected by OSHA, the federal workplace safety authority.

While it’s too early to draw definitive conclusions, troubling facts have emerged indicating that the Chinantla tortilla factory is not unlike many of the other food processing facilities in the Brooklyn-Queens industrial corridor. According to a report in El Diario, Mr. Baten worked incredibly long, twelve hour shifts, from six at night until six the next morning, six days a week. Regardless of what is uncovered in pending investigations, the length of those shifts alone, working through the night on dangerous equipment and with only one day off per week, should be enough to raise alarms. (The factory is currently closed by an order from the New York State Workers Compensation Board because of owner Erasmo Ponce’s criminal failure to pay for workers compensation coverage, the very coverage mandated to provide some financial protection to injured workers or to families of workers, like Juan Baten’s, in the event of workplace fatality.)

Many questions about Chinantla and Juan Baten’s death remain unanswered. What safety procedures and training did management have in place, if any? Was the factory sufficiently staffed so workers could meet demand at a safe speed? Was the equipment properly maintained?

Still, based on what is already known, I have no doubt that Juan Baten’s death could have been prevented. He should be with us today, working towards his dream of saving enough money to return to Guatemala with his wife and daughter. Instead, his family is left navigating a profoundly uncertain future with a deep wound in their hearts.

Sadly, it often takes a tragedy to open our eyes to issues normally kept safely out of sight and out of mind. Again, the conditions which likely contributed to Mr. Baten being killed are anything but uncommon. Indeed, they are typical of the food factories in the Brooklyn-Queens industrial corridor whose business models center on exploiting recent immigrant workers. The tragedy of Mr. Baten’s death will only be compounded if we treat it as an isolated case rather than a wake-up call to the systemic hardships facing workers along the food chain, mostly workers of color and immigrants.

The workers who work so hard to bring us the food we depend on to survive, often in unsafe conditions and through the night, need your support. Through workplace organizing, grassroots protests, and legal actions, a campaign called Focus on the Food Chain is helping a growing number of immigrant food workers in the Brooklyn-Queens corridor win improved working conditions and increased employer compliance with the law. But these fights always trigger fierce retaliation from employers and require robust worker and community support to win. To lend a hand through solidarity actions, financial support, or to share any other ideas you might have, please connect with the Focus campaign at http://tinyurl.com/focusonthefoodchain or focus@brandworkers.org

Together we can honor the life of Juan Baten, avoid more senseless loss of life, and ensure that this workforce never becomes invisible again.

DANIEL GROSS is an attorney and executive director of Brandworkers International, a non-profit organization protecting and advancing the rights of retail and food employees. Focus on the Food Chain is a joint campaign of Brandworkers and the NYC Industrial Workers of the World labor union.



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