Workers at the national electronics retailer B&H Photo Video are moving to unionize, following harrowing reports of perilous working conditions for employees based in the chain's Brooklyn warehouses.
On Sunday, nearly 200 B&H workers gathered to publicly denounce their employer, accusing the chain of rampant discrimination and egregious workplace safety violations. The complaints detailed in a press release sent by the worker-led group Laundry Workers Center are numerous: Employees are told to carry excessive loads and operate heavy machinery with little or no help or training. Poor air circulation is the culprit behind all sorts of respiratory problems. “My nose bleeds two or three times a day sometimes,” said worker Silverio Cano. “I went to the doctor, and she told me that the nosebleeds were caused by the dust in the warehouse.”
One warehouse, located in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, is allegedly insulated with fiberglass, fragments of which float through the air and leave "rashes, respiration problems and daily nosebleeds," workers told Al Jazeera. Another on Evergreen Avenue features asbestos-insulated tubing. “They would tell us to clean the tubes,” maintenance worker Miguel Angel Muñoz Meneses recalled, “but nobody wanted to touch them.” No kidding.
The workers, many of whom are undocumented, tell of additional horrors like kidney stones caused by insufficient bathroom breaks, as well as the lack of basic safety equipment like gloves, which they are routinely denied because "they are too expensive," one worker told the news site.
The list of alleged offenses goes on, though the worst occurred last month, when two tractor trailers across from the warehouse burst into flames. Workers say smoke filled shipping and receiving section, but they were not allowed to leave without first filing through a metal detector, a process that took upwards of 30 minutes. "When I got outside, the parking lot was filled with firemen and police. Imagine — if the fire had spread, we would never have all made it out,” said one employee.
B&H denies mistreating its workers. "We have committed, devoted, hard-working employees who enjoy above-industry salaries, generous benefit packages, 17 paid days off annually, and 3-weeks vacation time," Senior Executive Vice President Hershel Jacobowitz wrote in a statement, adding that B&H provides a "safe, friendly environment."
An organizer with the United Steelworkers union filed a petition Tuesday for a vote among warehouse workers to determine whether they want union representation. A lawyer representing many of the workers told the Times that more than 80 percent of the 240 people working in the warehouses had signed cards expressing their interest in unionizing.
The company has a long history of alleged worker mistreatment, having been the target of multiple lawsuits by employees who say they were denied promotions because of race or gender.
In 2007, B&H agreed to a $4.3 million settlement with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission after it was found Hispanic employees in its warehouses were paid less than other workers, many of whom were Orthodox Satmar Jews.
"Unfortunately, it is common that workplaces can be under investigation and then still be committing serious violations,” Stephanie Luce, a professor of labor studies at the Murphy Institute at the City University of New York, told Al Jazeera. “It's often that violators are violators in multiple arenas: They will be violating wage laws, discrimination laws and health and safety laws. For these companies, it's basically their business model: They are succeeding by cutting corners and taking risks.”