The story of Juan Baten and the NYC food manufacturing scene

This is an independent piece I worked on my final semester at NYU.  While I was interning for Capital New York, I pursued this story and also conducted video interviews, which I turned into a 10-minute video piece.

Juan Baten’s daughter, Daisy Stephanie, was seven months old when her father was caught and crushed in a tortilla mixer in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in January 2011.

Baten’s death briefly stirred media interest in the poor working conditions of the NYC food manufacturing sector.  The area stretches from East Williamsburg to Maspeth — just a stone’s throw away from the hip Williamsburg area right off the L stop.

The story surfaced again in July 2011, when the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) fined Tortilleria Chinantla up to $62,000 for several violations — the most serious being a “willful” infraction in which the company did not have a guard barrier installed on the tortilla mixer into which Baten fell.  Two other tortilla factories inspected during that time were also fined for very similar violations.

But Tortilleria Chinantla owner Erasmo Ponce defiantly continued to contest the citations and fines OSHA placed on him, the case dragging on for nearly a year.  This past March, Ponce was finally arrested following a probe by Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who charged the successful tortilleria owner with 26 felony counts and 23 misdemeanor counts, including filing false tax documents, and not paying employees’ overtime or worker’s compensation insurance.  Ponce was released without bail but is due back in court on June 12th.

“We think that they are really using Mr. Ponce as an example or as a posterboard for other small businesses that don’t have workers compensation,” Ponce’s lawyer, Mr. Manuel Portela, told the NY Daily News.

Daniel Gross, Executive Director of Brandworkers International, believes Erasmo Ponce was able to evade responsibility for Baten’s death for a long time, and that conditions in the food manufacturing sector overall have not improved.  On the anniversary of Baten’s death, Gross wrote an article stating, “New York’s food supply chain continues to rely on the systematic exploitation of recent immigrant workers, many from Latin America and China.”

According to OSHA spokesperson Ted Fitzgerald, although Tortilleria Chinantla guarded the machine involved in Mr. Baten’s death, it “contested its citations and fines to the Occupational Safety and Health review Commission and the case is still in litigation.”

“My office is committed to vigorous enforcement of the laws protecting New York’s workers,” said Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman in a statement. “We will aggressively pursue employers who violate labor laws, including criminally when appropriate.”

——–

Rosario Ramirez, Juan Baten’s partner and now a single mother, faces an uncertain future on her own.  Ramirez sits in the old Brandworkers office building in Long Island City, Queens.  She is nervous, soft-spoken, and playing constantly with the ring on her finger.  Ramirez left a small village in Guatemala to come to New York City in 2008 to work in a garment factory.  She worked 9 hours a day, 5 days a week.  Baten, also from Guatemala, came to New York City when he was 16 to support his fatherless siblings at home, and began working at Tortilleria Chinantla.

The two had met in New York, moved in together, and hoped to begin a new life in America with their soon-to-be-born child.  Ramirez stayed home to be with Daisy Stephanie after she was born, and Baten came home exhausted every day from the long hours of work at Tortilleria Chinantla.

One night in January 2011, Baten’s friend and co-worker called Ramirez while she was sleeping to tell her that Baten was dead — that they couldn’t get him out of the machine.

“[Erasmo] Ponce told El Diaro… that he was going to help me, that he was going to provide babysitter services for my daughter and care for the mother, but he didn’t,” Ramirez said.  “His wife told me that I was very young and I could start over again and find another man to live with.”

Ramirez said Baten worked at Tortilleria Chinantla 6 days a week for 8 hours a day during winter months.  In the summer, he worked 12 hours a day.  Many times, Baten would come home with grease on his pants because the workers were required to fix the machines when they broke down.  When asked if Baten and his co-workers ever received training on how to use the machines, Ramirez said she did not believe they did.

“In reality it’s very hard, because I have to be both a mother and a father,” Ramirez said.  “It’s very hard in this country. Sometimes I leave [Daisy] with a woman to take care of her.  It breaks my heart, but I have no choice.”

The Worker’s Compensation Board will be giving Daisy Stephanie $320 a week until she is 18, unless she goes to college–in which case she will continue receiving that amount until she’s 23.  But even that is sketchy, says Gross, as he is dubious of the accuracy of Ponce’s weekly salary records.

“In sweatshops, record-keeping is fairly flawed,” he said.  “We think Ponce’s records need a lot of scrutiny.”  Rosario, meanwhile, has not received any compensation as she was not legally married to Baten; she has also received no compensation or support from Ponce, despite his promises.

“At Juan’s funeral, when Ponce’s wife spoke to me, [Ponce] was standing right next to her but didn’t say a word to me,” Ramirez said.  She has not heard anything from him since, but believes he will have to deal with his conscience on his own.

——–

Tortilleria Chinantla owner Erasmo Ponce is a fixture in the elite NYC Mexican business community.  He’s been written about in various newspapers because of his company’s success — originally from Chinantla, Mexico, he has a rags-to-riches story.  His story is strangely reminiscent of Baten’s — Ponce’s father also died while he was still in grade school, and like most Latin American immigrants, he came to the U.S. to make ends meet.

While driving tortilla trucks for a factory, Ponce realized he could start his own tortilla business.  Tortilleria Chinantla ended up being hugely successful — $75,000 tortillas sold the first year, $150,000 the next — the income increasing each year as he bought newer and better equipment.

But despite his success, and the fact that he supposedly cared for poor Latin American immigrants as he was once in their shoes — Tortilleria Chinantla, like Buena Vista Tortillas Corp and La Tortilleria Mexicana Los Tres Hermanos Corp — also located in Brooklyn — still violated basic safety and health laws.

The violations found at Tortilleria Chinantla and these other factories, Gross says, are emblematic of the food manufacturing industry as a whole.  “Food manufacturing is a resilient part of New York’s economy and has potential, but is based on exploitation,” Gross said.  “It’s a very difficult, competitive environment.”

In order to compete with other corporations, the factories may pay under minimum wage, not pay for overtime, and not give days off, resulting in hundreds of thousands of dollars in wage theft.  It’s also cheaper to not pay for proper equipment, training, and safety measures.

Whether the Department of Labor has any efficacy in regulating the sector is another debate.  “It’s a mirage that the government will somehow make OSHA stronger or hire more inspectors,” Gross said.  “It’s not a meaningful check or inspection.  Employers are not squirming in fear.  Ponce, for example, did the worst thing — he killed someone — but only has to pay some $40,000, and that is the worst case scenario.”

According to an OSHA fact sheet, the employer has a chance to work out a settlement agreement to resolve the matter and to eliminate the hazard.  It states, “OSHA’s primary goal is correcting hazards and maintaining compliance rather than issuing citations or collecting penalties.”  The fact sheet also states that, “OSHA cannot inspect all 7 million workplaces it covers each year. The agency seeks to focus its inspection resources on the most hazardous workplaces.”  Priority is given to imminent danger situations, fatalities and catastrophes, and allegations of hazards or violations.

——

According to a new report by Brandworkers, 40% of food manufacturing workers complain of some sort of injury, safety/health violation, or abuse at their jobs.  Maria Corona, who came to the U.S. from Mexico, experienced such working conditions when she worked at Flaum’s Appetizers in Brooklyn for 4 years.

“The first manager I had… treated us well,” Corona said.  “[He] didn’t pay us overtime, but he respected us… When they put a new manager there, he didn’t treat us well.  He called us cockroaches,… and bothered us during our only break, telling us to hurry up and get back to work.”

When Corona and some of her co-workers asked to have a day off on July 4th to celebrate, the manager told them, “No, you’re not Americans, you can’t celebrate July 4th.”

During the winter, Flaum workers were required to grill eggplant outside in the yard and get frozen fish from refrigerated rooms, but weren’t allowed to wear proper clothing because it was bulky and would slow them down.  One of Corona’s co-workers, who was elderly, would constantly be sick, sometimes with eye problems, due to working outdoors in the snow.  His medical expenses were never covered.  Another co-worker was in the hospital for four months from exhaustion and over-work.

One day, Corona and some of her co-workers were approached by union workers waiting outside on the street corner.  They began meeting together and talking about fighting the injustice of the working conditions at Flaum.

“I was approached by the manager and he said, Maria go home,” Corona said.  “I said why, and he said ‘because you’re trying to bring a union to the workers.’  He told us that the only way to return to work was to leave things the way they were, without bringing in the Labor Department or union workers.”

——

The Brennan Center for Justice spent three years documenting workplace conditions and violations in several NYC industries — including the construction, apparel, food manufacturing, and restaurant industries, gathering all the information in their 2007 “Unregulated Work in the Global City” report.

[ Unregulated Work in the Manufacturing page lists statistics and common violations in NYC food manufacturing industry].

There will always be the sudden, tragic deaths or light-shining expeditions every few years when it comes to poor working conditions — not only in the food manufacturing industry, but other jobs as well — in restaurants and garment factories.  This time, it happened to be Baten’s death that causes our short attention spans to be turned briefly to this sector, only to be dissipated in a few months’ time.

Ramirez, meanwhile, tries to stay happy and looks forward to seeing her daughter grow up.  “I have hopes that Daisy will go to college, and that’s why I plan on staying here [in the U.S.], to make sure that happens,” she said;  she’s sure Juan would have wanted the same.

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