From YaleDailyNews.com, “Laborers protest working conditions” by Mohammad Salhut and Danny Serna, Staff Reporter and Contributing Reporter, 5 Apr 2011.
A group of migrant farm workers who claim they worked in near-slavery conditions are demanding justice — and they may soon get it.
Four former farm workers at Riverside Dairy in Northford, Conn., gathered in front of the New Haven courtroom on Elm Street Monday morning to draw attention to their plight and demand that their former employer, Joe Spezzano, pay the $140,000 in wages they say he owes them. In addition to the owed wages, the workers allege that Spezzano failed to provide them with humane working conditions, forcing them to sleep in the same building that housed cows and failing to provide heated housing in winter.
Speaking and translating for the Spanish-speaking workers, Megan Fountain, a volunteer with the workers’ rights group the New Haven Workers Association, claimed they were forced to work for Spezzano’s two companies, Riverside Dairy and MLS Construction, between 70 and 80 hours a week, for as little as $0.43 an hour. And while their owner’s case of defrauding immigrant workers and failing to pay minimum wage or overtime works its way through the criminal justice system, the workers are still without the money they earned.
“We just want to be paid the money we’re owed and see justice,” said Rafael Zamora, a worker who attended the protest. “We just want to go home and support our families.”
Spezzano owes an additional $16,500 to three workers who have already returned to Mexico, in addition to the three workers at the protest, the group alleged.
Although Spezzano appeared in court Monday, he requested and was granted continuance because he had only recently obtained counsel, Fountain said, so his court date was moved back to May 4.
Fountain said the workers will come out again for the May 4 court date. Spezzano’s attorney, Richard Silverstein, declined to comment Monday evening.
During the protest, the workers shared stories of neglect and even abuse on the part of Spezzano. Zamora claimed that he and the other protesters would work from 4 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day, while Spezzano had them living in a “dilapidated” house that also housed the dairy’s cows. The building hat no heat, but Spezzano grew angry with the men when they purchased a space heater to keep themselves warm, Zamora said. Whenever the workers complained, Spezzano would threaten to call immigration, Zamora added.
Peter Goselin, an attorney who has provided legal support for the workers and who attended the protest, declined to discuss their immigration status, as he said they still have the same rights before the law as other citizens.
“We cannot allow employers in the state of Connecticut to think that they can get away with this,” Goselin said, pointing out that Connecticut is one of the richest states in the nation, and therefore one of the richest places in the world.
Goselin also added that he believes the workers will receive all the wages they are owed, and may even receive legal status in the United States once the proceedings are over. Whether they want to stay in America, though, remains to be seen — three of the six workers have already returned to Mexico, and Zamora said he felt his rights had not been respected in America.
The workers hoped to meet with a victim’s advocate after Monday’s protest; when the trial was postponed, though, that meeting was postponed as well.