Protests, Lawsuits Hit SoHo Retailers
By Bendix Anderson
Carolina Ferreria worked more than 60 hours a week at the Amsterdam Boutique on Broadway in SoHo. She earned $8.50 an hour and never earned a penny of the overtime pay she is entitled to under the law.
“I had no idea about the law – I had no idea about overtime,” she said. “When I started getting an attitude about it, that’s when they fired me.”
Ferreria is just one of roughly 200 workers and labor activists who marched up Broadway to protest stolen wages and unpaid overtime February 3. The March of Hearts, organized by the Retail Action Project, stopped in front of stores owned by three chains being sued or investigated for illegal labor practices – from charging workers illegal fines to failure to pay overtime.
“You can’t exploit retail workers in New York City and expect no one to do anything,” said Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union. The Retail Action Project is a partnership between the Union and a community nonprofit, the Good Old Lower East Side.
The Retail Action Project helped workers fight for their rights by referring them to labor attorneys and state officials. At Shoe Mania, nearly 150 workers are suing the company for more than $3 million in unpaid wages. New York’s Attorney General is investigating Mystique and its sister stores, Amsterdam, Exstaza, and Madness, for what workers claim are nearly $2 million in unpaid wages. Workers are also suing Scoop NYC for hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Each one of these retailers received a visit from the March of Hearts as the crowd worked its way up Broadway. At Shoe Mania, the last stop, they were joined by a 12-piece band with trumpets, trombones, and drums.
With help from a megaphone, Ahmed Dalhatu told the crowd that he worked 60 hour weeks for Shoe Mania. Instead of paying Ahmed the overtime he earned, Shoe Mania took money out his pocket, charging illegal fines for such transgressions as calling in sick or using a cell phone. Ahmed had planned to save the money from overtime to eventually return to Berkeley College, where he has already taken classes in the past. Instead he had barely enough to live on and his college plans are still on hold.
Suruwa Jaiteh also marched to protest labor violations. He worked up to 90 hours a week at $7.25 an hour without overtime or lunch breaks in Shoe Mania’s often un-heated warehouse. He did receive health insurance through Shoe Mania, though at a cost to him of $400 a month, it was hardly a bargain.
“For decades, the retail sector has been a free-fire zone of worker abuse,” said Appelbaum. “With this march we’re putting every merchant on notice.”
February 3, 2010