I have a confession to make: Yesterday, I ordered a turkey sandwich at G-Heav. With extra hot sauce.
Critics of my culinary choice have argued that I am complicit in Gourmet Heaven’s alleged exploitation of its workers. I disagree.
When we see injustice, it’s perfectly natural to want to punish its perpetrator. That’s what the state of Connecticut is rightfully doing now by fining Chung Cho, the owner of G-Heav, for not paying his employees. But if we’re serious about preventing wage theft, we also need to tackle the issue’s cause. By that standard, a bacon, egg and cheese boycott would be counterproductive.
The major reason employers steal from undocumented workers is because they know that illegal employees, fearing deportation, rarely file complaints. A limited boycott of G-Heav would do little to deter wage theft, since the boycott now comes after the complaint has already been filed. A more prolonged boycott without a clear request would be worse still; it could slash demand, bankrupt G-Heav and jeopardize its jobs, hurting G-Heav’s workers as well as its owner. We would be sending a perverse message to exploited workers: File a complaint and risk unemployment.
So what can we do instead to encourage workers to file complaints? Here are three better options than a G-Heav boycott:
First, tell your member of Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform so no worker will have to fear deportation for making an honest living. As long as there are undocumented workers, there will be wage theft. From the employer’s perspective, paying an undocumented worker the same wage as other workers doesn’t make economic sense. By hiring illegal workers, employers are breaking the law and exposing themselves to liability, as evidenced by the thousands of dollars G-Heav was fined last year by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Because of this added risk, employers rarely pay these workers fair wages. The only way we can save their jobs and increase wages is by fixing our broken immigration system and allowing undocumented workers to earn legal status.
No faith in Congress? No problem. Let’s also advocate for common-sense legislation here in New Haven that would deter wage theft by encouraging workers to report it. The Connecticut Department of Labor allows workers to safely file complaints regardless of immigration status, but many immigrant workers aren’t informed of this right. The Board of Aldermen can pass a local ordinance that would require employers to prominently display this information in their workplaces in English and Spanish.
The board can also address the concerns of G-Heav boycotters who would rather not pay an employer guilty of misconduct. One way to do that would be to certify restaurants that comply with labor laws as fair working environments. Unlike boycotts like the one proposed, which would only affect businesses after complaints have been filed, this labeling system would provide an incentive for businesses like G-Heav to alter their behavior even if workers don’t complain. It would also empower consumers to make responsible purchasing choices.
Many students discussed both these policies during the last aldermanic campaign, and Yalies will have the chance to reconsider them in the coming months.
Finally, we as individuals can also help workers in need beyond G-Heav. How? Tip well if you can. According to a study by the Pew Research Center, 1.6 million hourly workers were paid the federal minimum wage last year. Nearly 2 million were paid less. The largest portion of these minimum-wage-exempt workers are tipped workers, who earn just $2.13 per hour. Until Congress comes to its senses and addresses this problem, let’s do our part to ensure these workers can provide for their families.
These are just a few of the ways you and I can address the problem of underpaid workers in New Haven. As we welcome a new group of student organizers to a campus known for its activism, we must show that as we honor workers on Labor Day, we don’t forget the most vulnerable among them. We must show that we have the will and the power to make a difference in our New Haven community. We must show that, in the face of injustice, Yalies fight back intelligently and effectively.
Vinay Nayak is a senior in Davenport College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.