On anniversary of Williamsburg factory worker death, activists call for action

A vigil for a factory worker killed on the job two years ago was held by friends and labor organizers on Thursday, January 24, outside the factory where he worked in Williamsburg. Those in attendance — which included workers, community members and labor organizers — was held to keep up the pressure in seeking justice for his wrongful death.

Specifically, activists want the city to “be transparent about who applies for loans to ensure that bad actors are not receiving public funds,” said Alexa Kasdan, Director of Research and Policy at the Urban Justice Center’s Community Development Project.

Juan Baten, a 22-year-old immigrant from Guatemala, was killed at the Tortilleria Chinantla factory, located at 975 Grand Street, in 2011 while on the job. He had been working there for six years when he was caught and pulled into a mixing machine. An investigation revealed that the company had failed to install a legally required safety guard that would have saved Baten’s life.

Factory owner Erasmo Ponce has since been arrested for his negligence and for violations against his workers’ payroll and compensation, and is expected to serve 90 days in jail and pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in restitution.

Attendees at the vigil hold a banner. (Photo by Michelle Kennel Shenk)

Since Baten’s death, labor organizations have fought to ensure that no worker falls victim to errant employers. Brandworkers and the Urban Justice Center’s CDP have requested that the NYC Economic Development Organization (EDC) publicly disclose all companies looking to receive loans under the Food Manufacturers Fund and require that they adhere to a code of conduct. Although the EDC has agreed to adopt a mandatory code of conduct for food manufacturers, they have refused to disclose loan applicants.

That isn’t acceptable, insist Brandworkers and the CDP.

“The people of New York City want the good jobs our communities need, and a transparent process for spending taxpayer dollars,” said Daniel Gross, executive director of Brandworkers. “Without the basic standards of transparency necessary for democracy to function, highly abusive employers just like the tortilla factory that claimed Juan Baten’s life could benefit from taxpayer money.”

Luis Pauta, an industrial baker and member of Brandworkers for 18 years, added that workers want the city to “only reward business owners who follow the law by providing safe work environments, and who offer an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work. Otherwise, [they are] giving incentives to employers who break the law, and Juan Baten will have died in vain.”

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