Lobbying Group for Food Factory Where Worker was Killed to Partner on City Subsidy Program
On Friday, the subsidized loan program for NYC food manufacturers, the Food Manufacturers Growth Fund, brought on East Williamsburg Valley Industrial Development Corporation (EWVIDCO) as its technical assistance partner. EWVIDCO is a business interest group that boasts among its members the infamous Tortilleria Chinantla—the Brooklyn tortilla factory where Juan Baten, a 22-year-old father, tragically died due to the unsafe working conditions maintained by owner Erasmo Ponce.
“EWVIDCO's recent appointment reaffirms what we have known since the Fund's inception,” said Joseph Sanchez, Campaign Coordinator at Brandworkers. “The narrow interests of lawbreaking employers, such as Tortilleria Chinantla, are being privileged at the expense of the rights and well-being of workers, taxpayers, and anyone who eats in New York City.”
As the Fund's technical assistance partner, EWVIDCO is now employed by the loan's administrator to recruit and train businesses, and help them prepare loan applications. Disturbingly, EWVIDCO has been given the green light select the businesses it wishes to work with—and one can only speculate that it might consider selecting from within its checkered membership.
A joint venture of the NYC Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC) and the controversial Wall Street firm Goldman Sachs, the Food Manufacturers Growth Fund is a subsidized loan program that will provide $10 million in loans to businesses in the growing NYC food manufacturing industry. While workers in the industry drive a vital sector of the City's economy, many employers exploit their largely immigrant workforce and compete unfairly with law-abiding businesses.
Alongside minimum wage and overtime violations and harassment, workers in the industry are often forced to process, produce, and package food in unsafe and unsanitary conditions. The tragic death of Juan Baten is a case in point. In 2011, after Juan was snagged and crushed to death in an unsecured dough-mixing machine, OSHA conducted an investigation of the facilities of EWVIDCO-member Tortilleria Chinantla. Tellingly, OSHA concluded that a simple and legally-required guard on the dough-mixer would have prevented his death—and that similar conditions were found at other facilities.
In March 2012, Erasmo Ponce, owner of Chinantla, was arrested and charged with 26 felony counts and 23 misdemeanor accounts. A member of EWVIDCO since 2009, Ponce pleaded guilty in June 2012 to payroll and workers compensation violations.
“Like Juan Baten, Brandworkers members are part of the 35,000 food processing and distribution workers whose hard work supplies New York City its food,” stated Brandworkers member Juan Romero. “We are organizing to put an end to the sweatshop conditions that poison our food-supply industry; we will not rest until dignified jobs and healthy food replace these conditions.”
Through a grassroots campaign backed by workers,consumers and public policy groups, Brandworkers recently persuaded the NYCEDC to incorporate a code of conduct that will require loan applicants to adhere to labor laws. However, the NYCEDC and Goldman Sachs continue to reject Brandworkers' call to disclose the applicants of the Fund so the public may comment before tax dollars are given out.
Brandworkers held a prescient and moving silent protest at the headquarters of the NYCEDC on March 20 to draw attention to the Fund's potential dangers. Nearly 30 protestors with Brandworkers held signs bearing the stark words, “We Remember Juan Baten,” in an effort to urge the NYCEDC to adopt a transparent, common-sense approach to public spending.
“Brandworkers has long cautioned that by operating behind closed doors, without any form of public oversight, the Fund risks putting taxpayer money in the pockets of lawbreaking employers whose behavior imperils both workers and consumers alike,” said Joseph Sanchez. “Transparency in selecting recipients in the loan program is more important than ever now that the business group that represents the interests of lawbreakers like Tortilleria Chinantla is recruiting applicants.”