TCWC Collaborator, Workers’ Center of CNY (Syracuse) Successfully Organizes with Mexican Workers Abused @ State Fair
The story below appears in the Sunday, April 18th edition of the Syracuse Post-Standard. The Tompkins County Workers’ Center stands proud in support of Rebecca Fuentes and Pat Rector’s work!
State fair vendor abused workers from Mexico
Published: Sunday, April 17, 2011, 6:18 AM Updated: Monday, April 18, 2011, 11:13 AM
Marnie Eisenstadt / The Post-Standard By Marnie Eisenstadt / The Post-Standard
In three booths at last year’s New York State Fair, 19 men worked in conditions close to slavery. They made and sold chicken gyros and french fries for 16 to 18 hours a day with a 15-minute break and one meal. They were paid $1 an hour.
They slept nine or 10 men to one bug-infested trailer, sometimes two to a bed. Some became ill.
They worked like this for 11 days at the fair.
On the 12th day — Labor Day — they worked 24 hours in a row, according to a federal criminal complaint against their boss.
The boss held a legal hammer over their heads: The workers, here legally from Mexico, would violate their visas if they quit their jobs. They’d be deported. They would never get back into the country legally.
They spoke no English and sometimes begged for food from other Spanish-speaking workers. At day’s end, near midnight, they would scrape together pocket change and walk for an hour or more to buy milk and bread. Sometimes, they felt so trapped they could do nothing but cry, said Samuel Rosales Rios, one of the workers.
This was not some hidden sweatshop or a remote farm. After buying a gyro from one of these workers at the Peter’s Fine Greek Foods tent, you could head to the Center of Progress, where state agencies like the attorney general’s and comptroller’s urge people to report scams and injustices.
Instead, the workers’ help came from a less likely place: two Syracuse women who gave two of the men a ride back to the fair from a hospital emergency room. During the holiday weekend, these two women blanketed their friends and contacts with emails and phone calls, hoping just one person would answer their plea.
Their work sparked two federal investigations into the men’s boss, Peter Karageorgis, of Queens, and a lawsuit against him. Federal authorities charged him with human trafficking, and the U.S. Department of Labor recently ordered him to pay 13 men $115,000 in wages withheld plus a $50,000 fine, according to government records. That’s in addition to $85,000 he paid 10 workers after prosecutors dropped the criminal case.
Karageorgis’ lawyer said the workers are trying to take advantage of him. Karageorgis, who declined comment, is contesting the labor department’s findings, which his lawyer said are baseless.
What happened to the Mexican workers is common in the carnival world, experts say. Operators shuttle migrant workers from fairgrounds to mall parking lots, selling food and running rides, under conditions that violate the law and the workers’ contracts. The workers often speak no English and have no support. They don’t know where they are. They have little choice but to keep working and keep quiet.
The phone call
Rebecca Fuentes was shopping with her mother Sept. 4 when her cell phone rang. A friend needed help. Two Mexican workers from the state fair were stuck at the emergency room. Could she give them a ride?
Rebecca Fuentes received the call to give Mexican workers from the state fair a ride back from the hospital. When she heard their stories of abuse, she worked to help them.
Fuentes is the coordinator at the Workers’ Center of CNY and is from Mexico, too. Her mother worked in the fields in California. Then the family moved back to Mexico, where she grew up. Fuentes has worked with migrants since she came back to the U.S. in 1996. But the story of abuse that began to unfold that day was beyond anything she had dealt with.
She called Pat Rector, a local workers’ rights activist and member of the Central New York Labor Religion Coalition.
At the emergency room, they found Rosales Rios, 23, and another worker. Rosales Rios had an infection from the bed bug and flea bites he suffered in the trailer where the men slept, Fuentes said. He needed an antibiotic. As they looked for a pharmacy open late on Labor Day weekend, the men told their story.
For the four previous days, temperatures had been above 90 degrees. The men worked all day and night in front of a grill. They had little to drink and not much to eat. They rarely had a break. They hadn’t been paid, they told the women.
They came here legally, under a contract that promised them $10.71 an hour, an hour break and decent living conditions, records show. They showed Fuentes and Rector the contract.
By then, the women knew the workers needed more than a ride.
First, they needed something to eat. They took the men to Juanita’s Mexican Kitchen, in Liverpool.
They ordered bean burritos — no chicken. That had been their once-daily meal since they started working for Karageorgis a few weeks earlier. Rosales Rios was so tired, so hungry, that he cried as he ate, Fuentes said. He showed the women a picture of his 3-year-old son.
That was why he came here, he said. To work and send money home to his family.
Rosales Rios’ trip started at the beginning of August in a small town in Durango, Mexico.
There, the average wage is less than $5 a day and jobs are few, Rosales Rios said, speaking from his home in Mexico through an interpreter. He supports his wife, his young son, his parents and his three younger brothers, he said.
So when a recruiter came to town in August offering work in the U.S. traveling the carnival route along the East Coast, Rosales Rios and four other men didn’t pause. They signed the contracts, Rosales Rios said. $10.71 an hour. A fortune.
They, and thousands of other workers at carnivals across the U.S., are recruited from Mexico to work on a temporary visa called an H-2B issued by the U.S. government, said Rachel Micah-Jones, executive director of Centro De Los Derechos Del Migrante. Her international organization helps Mexicans who come to the U.S. to work.
Carnival workers are often abused the way Rosales Rios and the others were, she said. They can work only for the employer who brought them here, which gives the boss tremendous power, Micah-Jones said.
Her group has filed complaints against three other carnival operations for similar abuses.
When Gov. Andrew Cuomo was attorney general, he prosecuted another New York carnival company — called Dreamland, in Stony Brook — for the same thing.
After the recruiter helped file their paperwork for their visas, Rosales Rios said, he and the other men drove to Texas, then flew from there to Buffalo, where they began working for Karageorgis at the Erie County Fair.
On the first day, they worked 16 hours with one short break. That’s OK, they thought. Every hour is another $10.71.
The next three days at the fair were the same, according to Rosales Rios and the criminal complaint. Long hours and no pay.
They asked Karageorgis for money. He peeled off $100 in cash for the men who asked, Rosales Rios said. When they asked why it was so little, Karageorgis said he considered the first workdays as unpaid training.
They packed into their trailers and drove down the Thruway to the New York State Fair.
It got worse, according to the criminal and civil complaints against Karageorgis.
Rosales Rios was sick. There wasn’t enough to eat or drink, and he stood all day in a hot tent. He scratched bites from bed bugs and fleas on his arms and legs until they became infected, he said.
The boss sent him back to the trailer near the end of the fair out of fear that customers might see him scratching, Rosales Rios said.
Rosales Rios went to the fair infirmary Sept. 4. Medical workers treated him for dehydration, he said. Then, worried about the infected bites, they sent him to the emergency room in an ambulance, he said. Another worker, from his same town in Mexico, also went.
The sleepless night
It was after 11 p.m. when Fuentes and Rector took the men back to their trailer at the fair, Rector said. The only food in the refrigerator was some take-out Chinese food Karageorgis bought them the first day, she said.
That night, Rector couldn’t sleep. A longtime labor activist, she was used to documenting unfair treatment of workers, but nothing like this. This seemed to be something criminal. The workers were in danger. And no offices were open because it was Labor Day weekend.
She did not know what to do. At 5:29 a.m. Sunday, Sept. 5, she sent an email to several local workers’ rights advocates, asking them to come to a prayer service for the men Monday, Rector said.
“We are not lawyers or medical people … ,” she wrote, “but we have eyes and ears.”
Rector also left messages for Catherine Quinn-Kay, assistant district director of the U.S. Department of Labor’s wage and hour division, and for one of her investigators.
Tram Stop 8A
Rector met Fuentes at Tram Stop 8A at the fair. It was close enough so the workers wouldn’t have to walk far, but not so close that their boss might notice, Rector said.
The women spent that Sunday there. As trams came and went, Rector and Fuentes worked the phones.
Desperate for some sort of help, Fuentes said, she called a phone number from a state Department of Labor brochure that offered help for mistreated workers. She was told someone would call back later in the week.
More Mexican workers came to Tram Stop 8A. They told the same stories. Long hours, no food, no money. They all wanted out. They still wanted to work, Fuentes said.
Fuentes told the workers the truth: It would be best for them to stay. But if they wanted to leave Karageorgis, Fuentes and Rector could take them to a friendly church.
In the afternoon, they heard from Quinn-Kay, the labor department official. She had received a call from the investigator Rector emailed earlier. She was going to send that investigator, who is bilingual, that same day. It was Sunday, and her day off. That investigator, Ruth Beltran, spent two days at the fair investigating and talking to workers.
The 24-hour day
Monday, Labor Day, brought the prayer service. The men were supposed to meet Fuentes, Rector and some other advocates at the fair’s main gate. But they were too weak to walk that far, Fuentes said.
Samuel Rosales Rios and two other workers at a prayer service in the Poultry Barn at the state fair in 2010. Standing are (from left) the Rev. Craig Schaub, Aly Wayne, Maria Revelles and Pat Rector.
So Rector and Fuentes brought the prayer service to them, at the Poultry Building. Three of the workers, including Rosales Rios, sat on a bench in front of a caged swan while the Rev. Craig Schaub offered solace to the men and asked God for help.
When the service was over, Rector wanted them to go to the infirmary again.
During that conversation with the medical staff, Fair Director Dan O’Hara showed up, Rector said. He left in a hurry, saying he needed to call his lawyers, Fuentes and Rector said. O’Hara would not comment for this story.
Eventually, the workers made it to the infirmary, where staff gave them ibuprofen and Gatorade.
Most of the 19 workers spent the rest of that day working at the fair, and then that night taking down and packing the booths.
On Tuesday morning, she came with burritos her mother made. To keep the investigation a secret, one worker pretended Fuentes was his aunt.
Rector was back at work that morning at the Central New York Occupational Health Clinic.
She and her boss, Dr. Michael Lax, wanted to make sure the workers were examined before they left town. So they persuaded the fair to let them set up a small clinic at the fair infirmary, Lax said.
Lax saw eight workers. They were overworked, tired and hadn’t had enough to eat or drink, he said. Some of them had lost 10 or 15 pounds during their 12 days at the fair. Many had been awake for 24 hours straight, according to Lax and the criminal complaint against Karageorgis.
Half of the men went to another fair in North Carolina, according to the criminal complaint.
The rest, including Rosales Rios and the other men from his town, went back to Queens with Karageorgis. At that point, Karageorgis was likely aware of the investigation.
On Sept. 9, Karageorgis was arrested by the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement office and charged with luring the workers here under false pretenses and threatening them when they complained. He had three large wads of cash in his pockets and a briefcase full of cash, according to the criminal complaint.
Karageorgis has sold food at the fair for seven years, said Jessica Ziehm, a spokeswoman for the state. He has applied to sell chicken again this year, she said.
Ziehm said the fair expects vendors to obey state and federal labor laws. The state would not contract with a vendor that is found guilty of violating those laws. The state is still reviewing Karageorgis’ application, she said.
She defended the fair’s handling of the matter, saying officials notified the state and federal labor authorities when they heard about the problems with Karageorgis’ workers.
Rosales Rios is back in Durango, Mexico. He and his wife have a second child on the way.
He was paid about $5,000 from the settlement of the criminal complaint. He does a little construction work in his town. But he doesn’t make nearly enough to support his family. He spoke, and asked to be publicly identified, because he wants justice, he said. He doesn’t want what happened to him to happen to other workers, he said.
He said he thinks he’s been blacklisted by the recruiters who come to his town looking for seasonal workers to come to the U.S. But he still trusts the U.S. and the opportunity that it offers.
He has one hope: “I wish I could go back.”
Contact Marnie Eisenstadt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 315-470-2246.