NYT editorial: Wages of Fear

December 3, 2008

Wages of Fear

Fear, abuse, exploitation and crime are real-life concerns for the immigrant poor and working class, even in comfortable suburbs like Long Island’s.

The death last month of Marcelo Lucero, an Ecuadorean killed in Patchogue by what the police say was a hate-inspired teenage mob, was one terrible example, but not the only one. The day before Mr. Lucero died, the New York State Labor Department ordered a cleaning company in Amityville, which is in the same county, to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in back wages that the agency said the company had stolen from 170 workers.

State investigators found that the company, Icon Cleaning, had whittled workers’ paychecks to the bone through illegal deductions. The workers, nearly half of them immigrants, worked 12-hour days and 60-hour weeks to clean air ducts and carpets. Some took home less than $100 a week for that work. They had been forced to pay $500 security deposits on being hired, and then had their wages docked to pay for things like equipment, uniforms, promotional campaigns and revenue lost when customers’ checks bounced.

It’s shocking that a company could expect to get away with such blatant and absurd mistreatment of its work force. It was all because of fear. State labor officials said that in this case, as in practically every case involving immigrant workers, victims had been cowed into silence by fear of retaliation and firing. Silent workers afraid to defend their rights are workers who are abused.

The Amityville debacle gives a hint of the monumental task ahead in Suffolk, where the police and county officials have begun a grab bag of steps toward making the immigrant population less afraid. The police have assigned one Spanish-speaking officer to foot patrol in Patchogue and plan other initiatives, like passing out Spanish-language fliers in Hispanic neighborhoods that urge victims to report crimes and giving cards with useful Spanish phrases to officers.

Officials said these efforts would rely largely on volunteers and private donations. They aren’t bad ideas, but if they trickle into effect without enough money and sustained effort to make them work, the scale of the problem could easily overwhelm their good intentions. Suffolk County’s positive reactions in the wake of the Lucero killing are only the beginning.