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Anniversary of a Death in a New York Sweatshop: Justice is Still Lacking in the Case of Juan Baten

By Daniel Gross - Counterpunch, January 24, 2012

A year ago today, Juan Baten, a 22-year-old Guatemalan, was crushed to death while working in a Brooklyn tortilla factory.  Mr. Baten was one of 35,000 workers in a little-known, but indispensable part of New York’s food system: a sprawling industrial sector of food processing factories and distribution warehouses that supply the grocery stores and restaurants where New Yorkers purchase their food.  A year later, justice has still not been done in Mr. Baten’s case and New York’s food supply chain continues to rely on the systematic exploitation of recent immigrant workers, many from Latin America and China.

Mr. Baten started working at Tortilleria Chinantla when he was just sixteen years old. He was working to support his young family – his partner Rosario and their baby daughter Daisy Stephanie – and to send money back home to Guatemala where his father had recently died.  Mr. Baten worked grueling, long shifts through the night for low pay, six days a week. On one such night a year ago, just hours after he called to check on his daughter, Mr. Baten was caught in the mixing machine in which he was brutally killed.

After conducting an investigation of the death, OSHA, the federal workplace safety agency, concluded that had the employer obeyed its legal duty and placed a required guard on the mixing machine, Juan Baten would be alive with his family today. Instead, because of what OSHA called Chinantla’s “disregard for the law’s requirements” or “indifference to worker safety and health,” Daisy Stephanie is growing up without her father and Rosario lives with a deep wound in her heart.

A year later, Tortilleria Chinantla and its owner Erasmo Ponce continue to evade accountability for Juan’s death. The company is still resisting the fine and citations imposed against it by OSHA.  In addition to the safety violations, Chinantla was briefly shut down after Juan’s death for failing to make required payments to workers compensation insurance, the system that provides financial support to injured workers or the families of workers killed on the job. Under New York State Law as an employer of more than five workers, Mr. Ponce’s failure to make the required workers compensation payments constitutes a felony crime. While New York prosecutes street vendors merely for selling their wares without a license and Occupy Wall Street protesters are arrested just for peacefully marching, Mr. Ponce has not been charged for his blatant criminal conduct.

While Juan Baten’s death was a painful tragedy, the conditions that caused it are not unique in New York City’s industrial food sector, which has an 80% immigrant workforce.  Brandworkers, in association with the Food Chain Workers Alliance and the Data Center, conducted a survey of food processing and distribution employees in the City which revealed that more than 4 in 10 had been injured on the job. From industrial bakeries to beverage distributors, seafood processors to salad preparers, sweatshops in the City’s food supply chain are failing to implement required safety procedures, training, and equipment.  Tellingly, OSHA investigated two other tortilla companies in Brooklyn as it investigated Chinantla and it found serious violations at all three factories.

Health and safety violations are far from the only challenges facing New York City’s food processing and distribution workers.  Wage theft is common in the sector with workers deprived of millions of dollars in wealth desperately needed to support families here and in their home countries.  Last year, at one food supply warehouse alone, employees organized to recover $470,000 in illegally withheld minimum wage and overtime from their employer.  Workers also face discrimination on the job, with recent white hires promoted above more experienced workers of color.  Abusive management is common as well, including anti-immigrant insults and workers pushed to work to exhaustion. Since paid sick days are almost non-existent in the sector, workers are regularly forced to come to work when ill, particularly troubling for a workforce that produces and transports our food supply. At one Brooklyn food sweatshop, workers not only lose a day’s wages for calling out sick, they are hit with an additional penalty deducted from their pay that week.

The hard working employees in NYC’s food factories and warehouses contribute greatly to the local economy and play an indispensable role in providing us with the food on our plates.  The hard work of the immigrant workers and all workers in the sector deserves to be rewarded with fair pay, respectful treatment, and safe working conditions. But to win good jobs, workers cannot rely on government enforcement alone and certainly not on the good will of employers in the sector.  Workers must come together and use their own collective strength to make positive change at these jobs.  That is what Focus on the Food Chain, a joint campaign of Brandworkers and the Industrial Workers of the World labor union, is all about. The Focus campaign provides training and support for food processing and distribution workers to launch their own efforts to improve their jobs using grassroots organizing, advocacy, and lawsuits. Through these effective workplace justice struggles and by building a growing base of leaders in the sector, the Focus campaign is winning improved conditions and demonstrating that workers have the power to transform sweatshop jobs into jobs with dignity.

Tonight, Focus on the Food Chain will join with Juan Baten’s family at a candle light vigil in front of the factory to commemorate his life and to call on Tortilleria Chinantla to accept responsibility for the reckless misconduct that resulted in his death. But to truly honor Juan’s life and his sacrifice, we must ensure that this tragedy is never repeated: we must work toward a food system that is based on dignity and human rights, rather than on exploitation and discrimination.