Demand for a worker safety code

A group of workers, community members and labor organizers, including Brandworkers and the Community Development Project at the Urban Justice Center, came together Thursday, January 24 to commemorate the second anniversary of the death of tortilla factory worker Juan Baten. At a candlelight vigil, the group urged the city’s Economic Development Corporation (EDC) to adopt a transparent process in its new subsidized loan program to inform the public on where their tax money is going and ensure that tax dollars support businesses that are creating good jobs.

Mr. Baten was killed on the job in 2011 after getting caught and pulled into a mixing machine at Tortilleria Chinantla. Federal safety investigators found that Tortilleria Chinantla recklessly failed to install a legally required machine guard which would have saved Mr. Baten’s’s life. Factory owner Erasmo Ponce was arrested and pled guilty to criminal charges. He is expected to be sentenced to jail time and ordered to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in restitution.

The NYC Economic Development Corporation, in partnership with Goldman Sachs and the New York Business Development Corporation (NYBDC), will soon launch the Food Manufacturers Fund. This program will bestow taxpayer-funded loans on food manufacturers in an effort to stimulate the sector. To ensure that bad employers like Tortilleria Chinantla do not receive city funds under this new initiative, Brandworkers has called on the EDC to require loan applicants to sign and adhere to a code of conduct as a condition of receiving a loan and to adopt a transparent process by publically disclosing potential loan recipients so that bad actors can be vetted before the loans are finalized. The EDC and NYBDC have agreed to adopt the mandatory code of conduct, however, they have declined thus far to adopt a transparent process of disclosing loan applicants.

“The people of New York City want the good jobs our communities need, and a transparent process for spending taxpayer dollars. While the City did the right thing by accepting our workers’ rights code of conduct for loan recipients, knowing which businesses apply for public funds is a must,” said Daniel Gross, the Executive Director of Brandworkers. “Without the basic standards of transparency necessary for democracy to function, highly abusive employers just like the tortilla factory that claimed Juan Baten’s life could benefit from taxpayer money. We urge the mayor and the EDC to adopt a transparent process for loan applicants that will help ensure that a tragedy like Juan’s never occurs again.”

“While the City has taken a step in the right direction by agreeing to mandate that all loan recipients sign a code of conduct protecting workers’ rights, it is critically important that they also be transparent about who applies for loans to ensure that bad actors are not receiving public funds,” said Alexa Kasdan, director of research and policy at the Urban Justice Center’s Community Development Project.

With some $5 billion in gross annual sales, New York City’s food manufacturing industry supports the livelihoods of nearly 15,000 workers and their families—an additional 10,000 workers in the City’s food distribution warehouses. Juan Baten is just one example of thousands of workers, mostly recent immigrants from Latin America and China, who work in New York City’s food manufacturing factories, who endure dangerous working conditions and chronic violations of their rights by employers. A forthcoming report by Brandworkers and the Community Development Project will reveal that food manufacturing/processing workers face long hours in dangerous conditions but receive limited training and benefits.

“The city should only reward business owners who follow the law by providing safe work environments, and who offer an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work,” said Luis Pauta, an 18-year industrial baker and a member of Brandworkers. “Otherwise, the city is giving incentives to employers who break the law, and Juan Baten will have died in vain.”

To protect workers from wage theft, unsafe working conditions, and other rights violations, Brandworkers and the Community Development Project at the Urban Justice Center are pushing for food manufacturers to adopt labor safety standards. This effort is part of Brandworkers’ and the NYC Industrial Workers of the World’s Focus on the Food Chain organizing drive to win good jobs and a responsible food system with the workers employed in the food factories and distribution warehouses that supply the city’s grocery stores and restaurants.

* Brandworkers is a New York City-based 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization protecting and advancing the rights of retail and food employees. By training workers in social change tools and facilitating member-led workplace justice campaigns, Brandworkers promotes employer compliance with the law and challenges corporate misconduct in the community.

* The Community Development Project (CDP) at the Urban Justice Center strengthens the impact of grassroots organizations in New York City’s low-income and other excluded communities. CDP partners with community organizations to win legal cases, publish community-driven research reports, assist with the formation of new organizations and cooperatives, and provide technical assistance in support of their work towards social justice.

More from Around NYC