While Chung Cho, the owner of Gourmet Heaven, is a master of culinary strategy, he seems to have a hard time grasping basic business ethics.
There is no doubt that G-Heav rakes in staggering profits. Its two strategically located deli markets have managed to virtually monopolize New Haven’s late night and pre-packaged food retail business. It has become a Yale tradition in the vein of Mory’s and Wall Street Pizza.
But employees like Adin, a former G-Heav worker who filed the labor complaint making headlines this week, do not share in the store’s success. Yes, they see its popularity as crowds of people flock in and out. But their wages are four to five dollars an hour, and they are forced to work 12-hour days at least six days a week.
I met Adin, who asked his full name be omitted for issues related to his immigration status, at the New Haven Peoples Center to discuss his experiences. “I was on my feet for 12 hours, so they often hurt,” he told me quietly. “The owners would watch us through the surveillance cameras, and if we were resting, even when no customers were in, they would come down and yell at us and force us to clean.”
Every hour, workers like Adin prepare about 20 sandwiches, clean the floors and greet customers with a forced smile — all without sitting down to rest. In exchange, they get an hourly compensation that can barely buy a pack of Oreos.
The damage is not limited to the workers. The community suffers, too: Wages paid in cash results in taxes not collected, and illegal wage cuts damage the equal playing field that make up the heart of any functioning capitalism.
G-Heav, clearly, is a harmful business.
I am generally sympathetic toward business owners who want to succeed and need to make their own living. In my head, I have attempted to rationalize the violations by attributing them to naiveté, an innocent mistake, even the sudden but fleeting pangs of greed to which we all fall victim. But the sheer magnitude of these violations means I cannot do so. It is clear that G-Heav’s exploitation must end.
Luckily, we find ourselves in a surprisingly powerful bargaining position. We are a large part of G-Heav’s customer base, and their lot is owned by University Properties. But inherent in such power is culpability. If we do nothing, we are like witnesses who see a theft and help the robber get away.
Last Friday, 25 members of the New Haven Workers’ Association staged a protest outside of G-Heav’s Broadway location. Following their example, we must begin our own boycott.
The boycott need not last long. It can be a week. Our goal is not to shutter G-Heav for good. It is to send a strong message that as a community, we will not long tolerate such indecency to workers who are trying to make a living in this world, like we are.
We are not strangers to boycotts. Today, Fossil Free Yale is encouraging the school to divest from large energy companies, and in the past, students campaigned to disinvest from apartheid South Africa. In 1984, students and faculty boycotted classes, which ended up pressuring the school to negotiate an end to the labor strike with the Yale workforce.
We also know that boycotts work. In 2011, Harvard students boycotted Upper Crust Pizzeria, which like G-Heav, mistreated their employees and paid less-than-minimum wages. The campaign was so successful that it bankrupted Upper Crust. Now, the pizzeria has been turned into a worker cooperative, aptly renamed “The Just Crust.”
This boycott can work. Each of us holds within ourselves choices about what to do, where to spend our money. A little redirection of funds away from G-Heav is enough to let these workers know they are not alone.
Toward the end of our conversation, I asked Adin about his background and his future. It turns out that he came to America from Mexico when he was 16, six months away from finishing high school. He crossed the border by walking through the Arizona Desert for seven days and seven nights. His group barely stopped to eat and sleep to avoid the border patrol. But the dream of America was bright, he said. Despite everything, “we made it,” Adin recalled. “We made it to America.”
Now, after leaving G-Heav, he has also been kicked out of his home by Cho, who is also his landlord. “My dream,” he said, “is just to be a student and learn.”
Every worker at G-Heav has a similar story. If you can stomach complicity in G-Heav’s exploitation, go on and continue to buy from them. But if you feel like I feel — upset, betrayed or unable to look squarely into a G-Heav worker’s eyes knowing the abuse — then help stop it.
Geng Ngarmboonanant is a junior in Silliman College. His column runs weekly on Wednesdays. Contact him at email@example.com.