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News :: Globalization : Human Rights : Labor : Organizing
Burlington Janitors Fast for Workers Rights
27 Sep 2006
Burlington, Mass. — Several janitors began a 5-day fast on Monday to show awareness on worker rights violations by three cleaning contractors, Resource One and Jani-Solutions, hired by real state development agency Gutierrez Co., and American Housekeeping, hired by one of its tenants. Every day of this week the group of fasters, monitored by a team of nurses, will be sitting on Wall and Cambridge Streets and are planning to hold a prayer vigil on Thursday.
“We are asking for justice for our fellow janitors for fair wages, health benefits, vacation and holiday pay, all of which they don’t currently have,” said one of the fasters Aminta Girón. “What we want is respect and justice for them. They pay taxes like everyone else.”

The protesters decided to hold the 5-day fast after earlier marches and flyering tactics delivered few results. With the support of members of the Burlington community, the clergy, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 615, and other supporters, they hope to move chief managers at Gutierrez Co. to demand their tenants and cleaning contractors to improve working conditions for the janitors that work on Gutierrez property.

Claire Gilbert, a SEIU lead organizer, explained that the janitors are paid wages as low as $9.00 and are required to work part-time with no healthcare or worker benefits. Ana Maria Fernandez, mother of three, said her wages did not reach $700.00 a month and was eventually fired together with three other female workers for trying to raise complaints about the poor working environment. American Housekeeping claims the women were fired for showing up late to work.

“People don’t have a say in that building,” said Ana Maria Fernandez, “They are scared of losing their jobs and too scared even to talk at meetings.”

The four women joined forces when experiencing sexual harrasment by one of its supervisors and have filed a suit against American Housekeeping. Ana Maria Fernandez tells how their supervisor would touch them inappropriately on the job, come behind their backs while they were cleaning and lean against them, and even undressed once in the presence of one of the women.

One of the plaintiffs, Flor Arached, has also filed a worker’s compensation claim after injuring her back for lifting heavy items into the trash but so far American Housekeeping has refused to pay.

David Potenza, director of property management at Gutierrez Co., said that it is not against the law to hire non-union contractors and added that Gutierrez Co. does not have a contract directly with American Housekeeping: one of its tenants, Nokia, does. They do hold contracts with Resource One and Jani Solutions, which could be voided with a 30 day notice.

“Being told who to hire is un-American,” said Potenza and added that the janitors under Gutierrez Co. cleaning contractors are not interested in joining SEIU. “I think the union needs to let the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination and the National Labor Relations Board do their jobs,” he said in regards to the investigations being carried out against American Housekeeping.

“Gutierrez Co. has the choice of who he leases property to and what kind of restrictions he can place on those leases,” said Anna Mumford, SEIU organizer. “There is a moral responsibility if you know some things are going on in your building.”

SEUI’s Web site carries a list of 57 “responsible employers,” cleaning companies in Massachusetts that offer their services with full benefits for their workers. They hope to challenge businesses to hire responsible contractors that follow area wage and benefit standards.

Bedardo Sola, a Harvard University janitor, who is fasting in support of the janitors at Gutierrez properties, talked about workers rights has been a continuous struggle for him. In El Salvador, his country of origin, he worked for garment factories, maquiladoras for Nike, Insinca and Adoc, for as little as $5.00 per day without benefits regardless of how many hours he worked daily.

“When I moved to this country I found some of the same injustice and explotation that I had lived in my country,” said Sola. In California he struggled to make ends meet and sustain his family in El Salvador with minimum wage jobs and no benefits with construction and cleaning companies. In Cambridge, he joined other Harvard janitors in their struggle for a living wage. Today he finally earns $14.50 an hour for an 8-hour working day and full benefits.

“I want these irresponsible companies to realize that in the same way that I’m experiencing these few days of hunger, my fellow workers in Burlington are experiecing hunger daily with the meager salaries they receive,” said Sola. “We demand respect for the janitor’s dignity.”

This work is in the public domain