FOUNTAIN: After GHell

Elise Wilcox Staff Illustrator opinion Gheav
Photo by Elise Wilcox.

Yale University Properties has announced that the lease with Gourmet Heaven deli will terminate in June 2015 and will not be renewed. Responding to a community uproar about sweatshop conditions, the University made the right decision. Now it is up to administrators — and students — to decide what kind of business will take Gourmet Heaven’s place. Another sweatshop, more aptly named “Gourmet Hell”? Or a different kind of business altogether?

Gourmet Heaven stole from its workers. The amount is staggering. Some workers were making less than $6.00 per hour and none received overtime despite working 72 hours a week. During one two-year period, the Department of Labor (DOL) found $218,000 in unlawfully withheld wages. But the total amount stolen over the life of the business likely tops $1,000,000.

Workers who spoke honestly to the DOL or collaborated with community activists were harassed, fired or had their hours reduced. The pressure to stay quiet remains intense to this day.

Despite all of this, the workers brought their complaints forward, and the community responded forcefully. Unidad Latina en Accion and the workers organized pickets. Yale students organized a boycott. The Connecticut DOL sanctioned Mr. Cho, and when he failed to comply, the State’s Attorney pressed criminal charges, which are currently pending. The Yale Daily News editorial board supported the boycott and called for Yale to terminate the lease.

Our community’s response was well founded. Wage theft is rampant. According to a survey of U.S. cities by the National Employment Law Project in 2007, 26 percent of low-wage workers were paid less than minimum wage in the week prior to the survey, and 76 percent of those who worked more than 40 hours were not paid the required overtime rate. Immigrant communities are particularly hard-hit since many employers believe they can easily intimidate immigrant workers into silence.

For most Yale students, it is impossible to put yourself in the shoes of a former Gourmet Heaven worker: going to work at age 16, to be on your feet from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. six days a week, with no time to study for a GED and little savings to send to the family you tragically left behind.

But employers like Gourmet Heaven not only victimize their own employees. They drive down working standards across the community; they cause unemployment for some by forcing others to do the work of two; and they render meaningless reforms like the recent minimum wage hike.

Likewise, wage theft hurts law-abiding employers. Those employers have a foolproof way to avoid boycotts, criminal charges and the termination of their leases: They pay minimum wage and overtime. They should not have to compete economically with those who don’t.

The termination of Gourmet Heaven’s lease sets an important precedent. Other Yale tenants are now on notice that the Yale community will not tolerate wage theft.

But this problem has not gone away. The time is now for Yale students and administrators to address this problem broadly, so that the courageous efforts of former Gourmet Heaven workers will not be in vain.

Yale should enlist the Connecticut DOL and invest resources to inspect all Yale contractors and tenants for compliance with basic labor rights. Yale has its own police. Why not its own DOL inspector?

There is no way to inoculate Yale against the poverty and violence in New Haven neighborhoods without taking a hard look at the sweatshop jobs that could exist right now on campus.

Many Yale employees, like dining hall workers, enjoy a living wage and benefits like Yale’s homebuyer loan program. But what about the employees of restaurants on Yale Properties earning poverty wages? What about the employees of cleaning companies that subcontract with Yale? Can we pretend that they are not part of our campus?

Students and administrators should meet with these workers and find ways to make Yale Properties not only a glamorous place to shop but also a good place for New Haven residents to work.

The departure of Gourmet Heaven is an opportunity for Yale to bring in a business that is truly good for the community. Why not a worker-owned cooperative, in which workers make decisions and share the profits? Universities like the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Wis. and Case Western in Cleveland, Ohio actively support cooperatives as an economic development strategy. Yale has resources to be an incubator for socially responsible businesses run by the city’s most disadvantaged communities. With vision and courage, Yale could show the rest of the city and beyond that a living wage is possible.

In the meantime, keep exercising your power: Boycott Gourmet Heaven.

Megan Fountain is a 2007 graduate of Trumbull College and a volunteer and member of Unidad Latina en Accion, a grassroots immigrant organization that defends human rights and workers’ rights in the greater New Haven area. Contact her at megan@ulanewhaven.org.

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