News/US: African Deliverymen Complain, Gently, of a Tough Job

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Subject: News/US: African Deliverymen Complain, Gently, of a Tough Job
From: Melanie Orhant (morhant@igc.org)
Date: Sun Nov 21 1999 - 23:13:02 EST


African Deliverymen Complain, Gently, of a Tough Job
By Andrew Jacobs
The New York Times, November 10, 1999

As pickets go, the labor protest outside an Upper West Side supermarket two
weeks ago was oddly subdued. There were no accusatory shouts from the
dozens of strikers, nor were there any of the fiery union slogans one might
expect from a group of disgruntled employees.

Instead, most of the protesters -- deliverymen for supermarkets around the
city -- stood in front of the Food Emporium at 68th Street and Broadway
tentatively displaying placards that advertised their grief: low wages,
long hours, no benefits. "We are slaves," the boldest of their signs
proclaimed. "Please help set us free."

In planning the strike, the protesters showed their lack of organizing
experience. They did not seek union help and enlisted only about 100 of
what they estimate are the city's 500 deliverymen. When their employers
threatened to dismiss them, the strike fizzled after only two days.

Their apparent naivete and their reluctance to make a scene suggested that
these were not your usual labor demonstrators. Most are immigrants from
West Africa, educated and courtly men who came to New York expecting
blessed excess and found themselves lugging sacks of groceries up
five-story walkups for a dollar, and sometimes less.

"We thought life in America was going to be easier," said Jacques Le Grand
NGouri, 22, who came from Gabon with plans to study filmmaking. "Maybe we
watched too much 'Dynasty.' "

The African deliveryman is one of the lowest-paid workers in New York's
service economy, filling a niche that pampered city dwellers have come to
depend on for their daily bread.

The deliverymen, known in the business as walkers, and their grocery-laden
carts, are an everyday sight in well-to-do Manhattan neighborhoods.

Lacking the legal status and fluent English that might ease their entry
into better-paying employment, the deliverymen have, until now, put up with
jobs that pay less than $2.50 an hour and require 12-hour days, six days a
week.

Because most of the city's largest supermarket chains contract out the
service to delivery companies, they can distance themselves from what labor
organizers say are blatantly exploitive work conditions and what may be
illegal hiring practices.

A spokesman for the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company, which owns A&P,
Waldbaum's and Food Emporium, did not respond to questions regarding their
delivery service. John Catsimatidis, whose company operates Sloan's and
Gristede's supermarkets, said the arrangement saved him money and that his
main concern was that the walkers be reliable and well groomed. "The last
thing I need is to get mixed up in labor troubles," he said.

The delivery companies that dominate the business dismissed the Africans'
complaints. "They make plenty of money," said Scott Weinstein, president of
Hudson Delivery, which handles deliveries for hundreds of supermarkets and
drug stores in the metropolitan area. "This strike is ridiculous."

Many of those who took a leading role in the walkout found that they had no
jobs to return to. Mamadou Camara, the main organizer, acknowledges that
the strike was poorly planned. "I guess we were naive," said Camara, 30, a
former bank teller from Mali who, like most, found his delivery job through
a compatriot. "We thought people would be outraged by how exploited we are
and things would change."

Ultimately, though, their efforts may pay off. The strike has drawn the
attention of a union, which has offered to take on their cause, and federal
labor officials are investigating whether the men were illegally fired for
their actions.

It has also opened a small window onto an insular group of immigrants who,
until the police shooting of Amadou Diallo in February, lived in relative
obscurity. Census figures, now a decade old, do not reveal their true
numbers. But Andrew Beveridge, a professor of sociology at Queens College
who specializes in New York City demographics, said that from 1990 to 1996,
the number of sub-Saharan Africans, most of them West African, nearly
doubled to about 84,000 from 44,000.

Africans here say they are daunted by racism and the usual obstacles faced
by new immigrants who do not speak English. As illegal aliens, they are
often too fearful to protest low wages, long hours and dismal work. And
they have a fear of failure that is compounded by a popular fallacy at
home, one they are partly responsible for spreading, that America dumps
wealth in the lap of every arrival. In many cases, there is also an
extended family in Africa that depends on their meager paychecks.

"If we come back empty handed, it will be a great shame for us and for our
family," said Issa Traore, 28, a deliveryman from Mali who lost his job
after the strike.

Traore pulled out a recent payroll stub, for $107, an amount he said
represented a 72-hour week. With tips, he said, his average weekly income
was $180, or about $2.50 an hour.

"We can barely live on that," he said in French. "It's absurd."

To make that equation work, the men keep their expenses as low as possible.
They share cramped apartments, cook at home and do without. "I haven't seen
a movie in four years," said Camara.

On a quiet side street in the Fordham section of the Bronx, about two dozen
Africans, most of them deliverymen, share a sagging white house whose front
porch hints at a gracious past. Steel bars now cover the windows and the
Shingle-style house has been divided into a dozen one-room apartments. One
man sleeps in a closet, his feet poking through the curtain that separates
him from the hall. The only decorative gesture is a wooden plaque in the
stairwell that says, "Bonheur et Prospeacute;rité ŕ Notre Famille" --
happiness and prosperity to our family.

In more jovial moments, the men call it their "White House," but sitting on
a grimy, cushionless sofa, sipping from cans of 7-Up, they quietly speak of
their shame and frustration. "Money is good, but humanity is more
important," said Traore, who shares his $400-a-month room with three
others, two to a bed.

Camara shares a small apartment in Harlem with his wife and several others.
Because of his income, he says, he has no choice but to send his wife back
to Mali after she gives birth to their first child in two months.

Every year, Camara said, he and his friends collect money to send home two
or three Africans who have become homeless. "We decided to do this strike
because we don't want any more guys to finish on the street," he said.

Unlike the others, he said, he frequently tells his family back home about
the realities of life in America, lest others be misled into coming. Still,
he will stay and probably try to find work with another delivery company,
he said apologetically.

To New Yorkers who are harried or too infirm to carry their own groceries,
the delivery service that most supermarkets offer is a bargain. At Food
Emporium, for example, delivery costs $2.25, no matter how many bags are
lugged, no matter how many flights of stairs are climbed.

The two companies that control most of New York's delivery service, City
Express Delivery and Hudson Delivery, list only post office boxes as
addresses. The owner of City Express, Charlie Bauer, did not return several
messages left with a woman at his office who claimed she did not know the
company's location. Those who work for Bauer said he pays the lowest wages
in the business, about 50 to 70 cents a delivery.

Weinstein, the president of Hudson Delivery, said his employees make $200
to $300 for 40-hour weeks. "My guys make a good living and they love their
jobs," he said, adding that the strike was an elaborate ruse by Camara to
steal away his 26-year-old business. "This is nothing but extortion," he
said. Camara denied that he was trying to start his own delivery business.

Both companies employ the men as independent contractors; they receive no
health benefits, no paid vacations and are not covered by most labor laws.

But after meeting with the strikers last week, officials with UNITE, the
Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees, said the men were
full-time employees, not independent contractors. "It's a typical ploy
employers use to skirt the law," said Mike Donovan, an organizer.

Randy Wilson, a spokesman for the United States Department of Labor, said
it seemed unlikely that the deliverymen could be considered independent
contractors, who determine their own hours and work conditions.

And the National Labor Relations Board is investigating whether the men
were illegally fired because of their organizing activities.

Even if the men were to be considered independent contractors, federal law
requires employers to verify their residency status. Hiring an undocumented
worker carries fines as high as $2,500, said Mark Thorn, a spokesman for
the Immigration and Naturalization Service. In 1995, a delivery company
owned by Weinstein was cited by the agency for hiring 12 illegal African
workers.

While most supermarket shoppers were sympathetic to the deliverymen's
plight, they said it would not change their shopping habits.

After checking out, Lillian Winston left the Food Emporium on Madison
Avenue and 87th Street one recent evening with Gasel Lii, a towering man
from Congo who carried two plastic shopping bags in each hand.

Lii, 32, who supports a wife and two children back home, wore a crisp white
shirt, buffed black shoes and a tie -- the uniform required by his
employer, City Express. "Most of the time, we deliver to doormen or
housekeepers, and they give us no tip," Lii said softly in French as his
customer walked a few paces behind.

When told about the deliverymen's low pay, Winston, who is in her 80's,
said that was unacceptable. "My father always told me to fight for the
little guy," she said as she approached her stately building opposite the
Guggenheim Museum. When asked if she might offer Lii more than her usual $1
tip, she sighed.

"I'm already paying $2.25 for this," she said. "Why should I pay more?"

Melanie Orhant

morhant@igc.org
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