Outside the Diva Indian Restaurant in Davis Square, a boisterous crowd fills the sidewalk on Friday evenings, chanting and holding signs. “Don’t dine at Diva!” one protester calls out. “One World Cuisine Steals Wages!” shouts another. An organizer holds aloft a sign for passing cars to see: “Honk if you hate wage theft!”
Organizers are picketing to inform the public that Diva Restaurant’s owner, One World Cuisine, stands accused of stealing over $100,000 in wages from its workers. According to former employees, Diva paid workers less than minimum wage and failed to pay them for overtime, even while making them work 60 or 70 hours per week. Former workers are now suing the company.
Most would-be patrons stop and listen. Some continue inside. But about half of them, standing on the threshold, change their minds and go elsewhere, thanking the organizers. “Wow. I had no idea,” says one local student.
Centro Presente sat down with the workers and compiled the information about the pay they had been collectively denied, estimating the total wage theft to be over $100,000
On the picket line, dozens of Somerville residents—sometimes sporting drums and musical instruments—join former Diva employees, alongside organizers from Centro Presente, a state-wide community organization whose mission is to empower Latino immigrant workers and their communities.
“We want to set a precedent. To teach these employers a lesson. Un entendecedente!” exclaims Edic Herrera, a worker-activist with Centro Presente. “We’re going to make them pay what they owe.”
The lively pickets have become a regular feature in Davis Square, as workers and their supporters draw public attention to the labor practices of One World Cuisine, which owns and operates ten high-end Asian dining establishments in the Boston area. The picket runs every Friday from six to seven pm.
For Occupy Somerville activist Rand Wilson, this campaign provides a “great opportunity for our community to assert our values. If we can win at Diva it will send a message to everybody else,” in the Davis Square, in Somerville, and beyond.
It amounts to what Centro Presente Board President, Gabriel Camacho, calls a “community education campaign” aimed to alert neighbors and passerby, as well as would-be patrons, about the abusive labor practices of One World Cuisine.
The campaign versus One World Cuisine began over a year ago, when a restaurant worker, complained to a friend, Edic Herrera of Brighton, about his boss refusing to pay him. “Come back next week, they kept telling him, for four weeks in a row.” Herrera put the worker, newly arrived in the US from Guatemala, in touch with Centro Presente’s Workers’ Center. It soon became clear that the worker wasn’t alone. Herrera helped to locate at least seven former One World employees who had similar grievances: being forced to work extraordinarily long hours for no overtime, having their paychecks bounce, and receiving far less than the Massachusetts minimum wage of $8.00 per hour. Centro Presente sat down with the workers and compiled the information about the pay they had been collectively denied, estimating the total wage theft to be over $100,000, literally thousands of hours of unpaid work.
It wasn’t the first time that One World had been accused of wage theft. Just last year Centro Presente handled a similar case, involving fewer workers. That case eventually came to a settlement of more than $10,000. “So we’re dealing with a repeat offender here,” as Camacho puts it. To date, One World Cuisine owner, Amrik Pabla, has refused to negotiate in person with his former employees.
One World Cuisine’s practices may be more the rule than the exception. Wage theft, according to Camacho, is pervasive in the US today. Immigrant workers and especially those who lack proper papers bear the brunt of this illegal exploitation. As Camacho puts it, ““The immigrant labor force in the US is viewed by employers as a cheap and disposable labor force. Unscrupulous employers knowingly take advantage of these workers’ vulnerability. They think they can get away with it.”
And by many accounts, they do. Most undocumented workers either do not know that they have workplace rights under the law (regardless of their legal status), or are afraid that if they exercise those rights, their employers will turn them into immigration authorities. Others are in such dire economic conditions that they are unwilling to do anything that may jeopardize their jobs, even if part of their pay is being stolen.
Such wage theft, common in the fields of construction and across service industries, is particularly widespread in the restaurant business, where notoriously intense competition drives many employers to squeeze worker wages. Those who work in the “back of the house” –cooking the food, cleaning the dishes, as well as the kitchen and the dining rooms themselves at the end of the night—are often paid less than minimum wage, and routinely denied over-time pay even as they are expected to work up to 70 hours per week.
“The reality,” Rand Wilson points out, “is that most restaurants are engaged in some kind of wage theft.” He added, “What’s unusual here is that these workers stood up and said, ‘No!’ And that they have community support behind them.”
According to Interfaith Worker Justice and WageTheft.org, billions of dollars in wages are effectively stolen from workers every year, in the US alone.
As Camacho points out, “In most states today even if an employer is found guilty of stealing wages, all the workers can win back from them are the owed wages, no damages. So there’s no financial incentive for employers not to try to deny workers.”
Unlike most other states, however, Massachusetts statute Chapter 149 mandates that an employer who is found to have knowingly withheld wages owed to workers can be required to pay up to three times the owed amount (including legal and court fees), in punitive damages.
Despite the relatively “worker-friendly” Massachusetts law, however, litigation can take years and can costs thousands of dollars, while workers often cannot afford either the time or legal fees to complete the process. According to Camacho, while the current U.S. Secretary of Labor, Hilda Solis, has been much more responsive to wage theft concerns than her predecessor, her office still lacks the funding and the staff to seriously take on what amounts to an epidemic of extra-legal exploitation. This means long delays before cases get heard.
Davis Square activist and picketer, Dave Grosser points out the hypocrisy of class-biased law enforcement: “The government spends billions terrorizing immigrants with programs like ‘Secure Communities,’ while laws that are supposed to govern employer conduct aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on.”
Thus, while several workers have sued One World Cuisine in both state and federal court, Centro Presente hopes that picketing and other community education events can pressure One World Cuisine ownership to come to the table with the wronged workers to negotiate a settlement outside of court.
As Centro organizer Patricia Montes puts it, “This is a campaign directed by the workers. We’re here to educate, organize, and fight for justice.”