B&H Photo in New York has been been accused of a range of OH&S breaches and mistreatment and underpayment of its largely Latino immigrant warehouse workforce, leading to a walk-out and rally in early October.
It’s alleged employees can work 12 to 16 hours a day without regular water and bathroom breaks. Workers say they are seldom given safety training and are regularly denied equipment such as gloves, masks and hard hats.
Many of the workers report suffering from regular nosebleeds and respiratory issues because of the high level of fibreglass dust in the poorly-ventilated, windowless warehouse.
Last year a truck caught fire and filled the premises with smoke, but workers claim they were prohibited from using emergency exits and forced to pass through a metal detector before leaving the premises.
‘There was a ton of smoke, but we continued working, even when the room filled with smoke,’ warehouse worker Baltizar Martinez told Al Jazeera America. ‘When we were finally allowed to leave, we had to go through the metal detectors. This process lasted for a half hour. When we got outside, there were 50 firefighters and a helicopter, and imagine! We had been inside working this whole time.’
While the store is famous for being the largest Hasidic-owned and -operated retailer in New York, the majority of the workforce are immigrants from Mexico and Guatemala.
Around 200 have now signed union authorisation cards with the United Steelworkers (USW) in order to negotiate a contract to win better safety procedures and end the two-tier wage system that separates the better paid Hasidic workers from lower-paid Latino workers.
After the initial rally, on October 15, workers at both warehouses were pressured in one-on-one meetings with management and consultants not to join a union, and forced to leave the premises if they did not agree to sign documents in English that many of them did not understand.
There is some dispute as to whether they were sacked and then re-instated the next day, or staged a voluntary walk-out.
B&H has previous form in poor employee relations. The store was sued in 2007 by Hispanic employees who work in the warehouse and were paid less than their Jewish co-workers. The company settled without admitting any wrongdoing, paid out US$4.3 million and agreed to regular monitoring by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
In 2010 seven women accused the company of paying female employees less than their male counterparts and not allowing them to fill prized sales positions.
Click here for the B&H statement defending its employee relations practices.
Click here for more from the B&H workers.