All that’s local isn’t gold

The folk over at Portside have circulated an article from the San Jose Mercury News. It decries the treatment of workers at local neighbourhood stores, and is another reminder that ‘local’ need not be synonymous with ‘ethical’….

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Groups decry labor abuses at ‘mercado’ markets

Campaign will inform workers of their rights

By Jessie Mangaliman – Mercury News

Scores of California workers employed in small neighborhood stores in Latino and Asian communities are enduring abuse in the workplace – unpaid wages, long hours without breaks, verbal and sexual abuse – union and civil rights officials said this week.

A year after receiving reports of these abuses in so- called “mercados,” or neighborhood markets, a coalition of labor unions and civil rights organizations Friday launched a statewide campaign to educate workers about their rights, and employers about their legal obligations.

“We do support business,” said Phil G. Tucker, project director for California Healthy Communities Networks, an umbrella group of social service agencies, churches and civil rights groups. “But we do not support sweatshop operations.”

Many mercado workers are immigrants, officials said, but whether their immigration status in the United States is legal or not, they have rights in the workplace.

Tucker’s group joined with Local 5 of the United Food Workers Union, the Mexican Consulate in San Jose, the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, the Instituto Laboral de la Raza and Proyecto de Ciudadania de Salinas. Assemblyman Joe Coto, D-San Jose, said he supports the campaign.

Called “Justice for Mercado Workers,” the campaign will work in tandem with legal efforts now under way to obtain relief for some of the abused workers, said Gerardo Dominguez, an organizer with UFCW Local 5. In the past year, he said, the union and other labor rights groups have obtained legal settlements worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in back wages for mercado workers in Oakland, Richmond and Concord.

Legal remedies for other cases – some in the Bay Area – are now being sought, he said.

The extent of the abuses are statewide, officials said.

There are thousands of mercados in California, employing thousands of workers, many of them Latinos.

In San Jose alone, officials estimated 5,000 workers in such markets. In Contra Costa, they estimated 1,000 workers.

Reyna Alvarado, 28, of Concord, said she worked for five months as a cashier at a mercado in Concord at $6 an hour – under California’s minimum wage of $7.50.

“I worked 10-hour days and we never got breaks,” she said, carrying her 5-month-old son, Maximilliano.

Alvarado has been on maternity leave for about a month, but said she is worried about returning to work after learning that one of her colleagues was recently fired after asking to take maternity leave.

“These are serious violations that are occurring in these mercados,” said Angel G. Luevano, state director of California LULAC. “Ya basta,” he added in Spanish, “Enough.”

Sarah M. Shaker, executive director of the Instituto Laboral de La Raza, a San Francisco labor rights group, said her group worked on 600 cases last year involving unpaid wages and benefits for immigrant workers.

“The problems we’re learning about mercados,” she said, “are problems we see every day.”